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IN ITS THREE YEARS of existence, the Harvard Psilocybin Project accomplished surprisingly little, at least in terms of science. In their first experiments, Leary and Alpert administered psilocybin to hundreds of people of all sorts, including housewives, musicians, artists, academics, writers, fellow psychologists, and graduate students, who then completed questionnaires about their experiences. According to “Americans and Mushrooms in a Naturalistic Environment: A Preliminary Report,” most subjects had generally very positive and occasionally life-changing experiences.

“Naturalistic” was apt: these sessions took place not in university buildings but in comfortable living rooms, accompanied by music and candlelight, and to a casual observer they would have looked more like parties than experiments, especially because the researchers themselves usually joined in. (Leary and Alpert took a heroic amount of psilocybin and, later, LSD.) At least in the beginning, Leary, Alpert, and their graduate students endeavored to write up accounts of their own and their subjects’ psilocybin journeys, as if they were pioneers exploring an unmapped frontier of consciousness and the previous decade of work surveying the psychedelic landscape had never happened. “We were on our own,” Leary wrote, somewhat disingenuously. “Western literature had almost no guides, no maps, no texts that even recognized the existence of altered states.”

Drawing on their extensive fieldwork, however, Leary did do some original work theorizing the idea of “set” and “setting,” deploying the words in this context for the first time in the literature. These useful terms, if not the concepts they denote—for which Al Hubbard deserves most of the credit—may well represent Leary’s most enduring contribution to psychedelic science. Leary and Alpert published a handful of papers in the early years at Harvard that are still worth reading, both as well-written and closely observed ethnographies of the experience and as texts in which the early stirrings of a new sensibility can be glimpsed.

Building on the idea that the life-changing experiences of volunteers in the Psilocybin Project might have some broader social application, in 1961 Leary and a graduate student, Ralph Metzner, dreamed up a more ambitious research project. The Concord Prison Experiment sought to discover if the potential of psilocybin to change personality could be used to reduce recidivism in a population of hardened criminals. That this audacious experiment ever got off the ground is a testimony to Leary’s salesmanship and charm, for not only the prison psychiatrist but the warden had to sign off on it.

The idea was to compare the recidivism rates of two groups of prisoners in a maximum security prison in Concord, Massachusetts. A group of thirty-two inmates received psilocybin in sessions that took place in the prison, with one member of Leary’s team taking the drug with them—so as not to condescend to the prisoners, Leary explained, or treat them like guinea pigs.* The other remained straight in order to observe and take notes. A second group of inmates received no drugs or special treatment of any kind. The two groups were then followed for a period of months after their release.

Leary reported eye-popping results: ten months after their release, only 25 percent of the psilocybin recipients had ended up back in jail, while the control group returned at a more typical rate of 80 percent. But when Rick Doblin at MAPS meticulously reconstructed the Concord experiment decades later, reviewing the outcomes subject by subject, he concluded that Leary had exaggerated the data; in fact, there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of recidivism between the two groups. (Even at the time, the methodological shortcomings of the study had prompted David McClelland, the department chair, to write a scathing memo to Metzner.) Of Leary’s scientific work, Sidney Cohen, himself a psychedelic researcher, concluded that “it was the sort of research that made scientists wince.”

Leary played a more tangential role in one other, much more credible study done in the spring of 1962: the Good Friday Experiment, described in chapter one. Unlike the Concord Prison Experiment, the “Miracle at Marsh Chapel,” as it became known, made a good faith effort to honor the conventions of the controlled, double-blind psychology experiment. Neither the investigators nor the subjects—twenty divinity students—were told who had gotten the drug and who had gotten the placebo, which was active. The Good Friday study was far from perfect; Pahnke suppressed the fact that one subject freaked out and had to be sedated. Yet Pahnke’s main conclusion—that psilocybin can reliably occasion a mystical experience that is “indistinguishable from, if not identical with,” the experiences described in the literature—still stands and helped to inspire the current wave of research, particularly at Johns Hopkins, where it was replicated (roughly speaking) in 2006.

But most of the credit for the Good Friday Experiment rightfully belongs to Walter Pahnke, not Timothy Leary, who was critical of its design from the start; he had told Pahnke it was a waste of time to use a control group or a placebo. “If we learned one thing from that experience,” Leary later wrote, “it was how foolish it was to use a double-blind experiment with psychedelics. After five minutes, no one’s fooling anyone.”

• • • BY NOW, Leary had pretty much lost interest in doing science; he was getting ready to trade the “psychology game” for what he would call the “guru game.” (Perhaps Leary’s most endearing character trait was never to take himself too seriously—even as a guru.) It had become clear to him that the spiritual and cultural import of psilocybin and LSD far outweighed any therapeutic benefit to individuals. As with Hubbard and Huxley and Osmond before him, psychedelics had convinced Leary that they had the power not just to heal people but to change society and save humankind, and it was his mission to serve as their prophet. It was as though the chemicals themselves had hit upon a brilliant scheme for their own proliferation, by colonizing the brains of a certain type of charismatic and messianic human.

“We were thinking far-out history thoughts at Harvard,” Leary later wrote about this period, “believing that it was a time (after the shallow, nostalgic fifties) for far-out visions, knowing that America had run out of philosophy, that a new, empirical, tangible meta-physics was desperately needed.” The bomb and the cold war formed the crucial background to these ideas, investing the project with urgency.

Leary was also encouraged in his shift from scientist to evangelist by some of the artists he turned on. In one notable session at his Newton home in December 1960, Leary gave psilocybin to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, a man who needed no chemical inducement to play the role of visionary prophet. Toward the end of an ecstatic trip, Ginsberg stumbled downstairs, took off all his clothes, and announced his intention to march naked through the streets of Newton preaching the new gospel.

“We’re going to teach people to stop hating,” Ginsberg said, “start a peace and love movement.” You can almost hear in his words the 1960s being born, the still-damp, Day-Glo chick cracking out of its shell. When Leary managed to persuade Ginsberg not to leave the house (among other issues, it was December), the poet got on the phone and started dialing world leaders, trying to get Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Mao Zedong on the line to work out their differences. In the end, Ginsberg was only able to reach his friend Jack Kerouac, identifying himself as God (“that’s G-O-D”) and telling him he must take these magic mushrooms.

Along with everyone else.

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