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Timothy Leary

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Timothy Leary being arrested in 1972.

Timothy Francis Leary (October 22, 1920 – May 31, 1996) was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions. Leary conducted experiments under the Harvard Psilocybin Project during American legality of LSD and psilocybin, resulting in the Concord Prison Experiment and the Marsh Chapel Experiment. Leary's colleague, Richard Alpert, was fired from Harvard University on May 27, 1963 for giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student. Leary was planning to leave Harvard when his teaching contract expired in June, the following month. He was fired, for "failure to keep classroom appointments", with his pay docked on April 30.[1]

Leary believed that LSD showed potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry. He used LSD himself and developed a philosophy of mind expansion and personal truth through LSD.[2][3] He popularized catchphrases that promoted his philosophy, such as "turn on, tune in, drop out", "set and setting", and "think for yourself and question authority". He also wrote and spoke frequently about transhumanist concepts involving space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension (SMI²LE),[4] and developed the eight-circuit model of consciousness in his book Exo-Psychology(1977). He gave lectures, occasionally billing himself as a "performing philosopher".[5]

During the 1960s and 1970s, he was arrested often enough to see the inside of 36 different prisons worldwide.[6] President Richard Nixon once described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America"

Psychedelic experiments and experiencesEdit

On May 13, 1957, Life magazine published an article by R. Gordon Wasson that documented the use of psilocybin mushrooms in religious rites of the indigenous Mazatec people of Mexico.[30] Anthony Russo, a colleague of Leary's, had experimented with psychedelic (or entheogenic) Psilocybe mexicanamushrooms on a trip to Mexico and told Leary about it. In August 1960,[31] Leary traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico with Russo and consumed psilocybinmushrooms for the first time, an experience that drastically altered the course of his life.[32] In 1965, Leary commented that he had "learned more about ... (his) brain and its possibilities ... [and] more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than ... in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology."[32]

Leary returned from Mexico to Harvard in 1960, and he and his associates (notably Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass) began a research program known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The goal was to analyze the effects of psilocybin on human subjects (first prisoners, and later Andover Newton Theological Seminary students) from a synthesized version of the drug (which was legal at the time), one of two active compounds found in a wide variety of hallucinogenic mushrooms, including Psilocybe mexicana. The compound in question was produced by a process developed by Albert Hofmann ofSandoz Pharmaceuticals, who was famous for synthesizing LSD.[33]

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg heard about the Harvard research project and asked to join the experiments. Leary was inspired by Ginsberg's enthusiasm, and the two shared an optimism in the benefit of psychedelic substances to help people "turn on" (i.e., discover a higher level of consciousness). Together they began a campaign of introducing intellectuals and artists to psychedelics.[34]

Leary argued that psychedelic substances—in proper doses, in a stable setting, and under the guidance of psychologists—could alter behavior in beneficial ways not easily attainable through regular therapy. His research focused on treating alcoholism and reforming criminals. Many of his research subjects told of profound mystical and spiritual experiences which they said permanently and positively altered their lives.[35]

The Concord Prison Experiment was designed to evaluate the effects of psilocybin combined with psychotherapy on rehabilitation of released prisoners, after being guided through the psychedelic experience, or "trips," by Leary and his associates. Thirty-six prisoners were reported to have repented and sworn to give up future criminal activity. The average recidivism rate was 60 percent for American prisoners in general, whereas the recidivism rate for those involved in Leary's project dropped to 20 percent. The experimenters concluded that long-term reduction in overall criminal recidivism rates could be effected with a combination of psilocybin-assisted group psychotherapy (inside the prison) along with a comprehensive post-release follow-up support program modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous.[36][37]

These conclusions were later contested in a follow-up study on the basis of time differences monitoring the study group vs. the control group, and differences between subjects re-incarcerated for parole violations and those imprisoned for new crimes. The researchers concluded that statistically only a slight improvement could be attributed to psilocybin in contrast to the significant improvement reported by Leary and his colleagues.[38] Rick Doblinsuggested that Leary had fallen prey to the Halo Effect, skewing the results and clinical conclusions. Doblin further accused Leary of lacking "a higher standard" or "highest ethical standards in order to regain the trust of regulators". Ralph Metzner rebuked Doblin for these assertions: "In my opinion, the existing accepted standards of honesty and truthfulness are perfectly adequate. We have those standards, not to curry favor with regulators, but because it is the agreement within the scientific community that observations should be reported accurately and completely. There is no proof in any of this re-analysis that Leary unethically manipulated his data."[39][40]

Leary and Alpert founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was run by Lisa Bieberman (now known as Licia Kuenning),[41] a friend of Leary.[42] The Harvard Crimson described her as a 'disciple'.[43] Their research attracted so much public attention that many who wanted to participate in the experiments had to be turned away due to the high demand. To satisfy the curiosity of those who were turned away, a black market for psychedelics sprang up near the Harvard campus.[44]

According to Andrew Weil, Leary was fired for not giving his required lectures, while Alpert was fired for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate in an off-campus apartment.[44][45] This version is supported by the words of Harvard University president Nathan Marsh Pusey, who released the following statement on May 27, 1963:

On May 6, 1963, the Harvard Corporation voted, because Timothy F. Leary, lecturer on clinical psychology, has failed to keep his classroom appointments and has absented himself from Cambridge without permission, to relieve him from further teaching duty and to terminate his salary as of April 30, 1963.[26]

In 1967, Leary engaged in a televised debate with Jerry Lettvin of MIT.[46] Leary's activities interested siblings Peggy, Billy, and Tommy Hitchcock, heirs to the Mellon fortune, who helped Leary and his associates acquire a rambling mansion in 1963 on an estate in Millbrook (near Poughkeepsie, the site of Vassar College), where they continued their experiments. Leary later wrote:

We saw ourselves as anthropologists from the 21st century inhabiting a time module set somewhere in the dark ages of the 1960s. On this space colony we were attempting to create a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.[47]

The Millbrook estate was later described by Luc Sante of The New York Times as:

the headquarters of Leary and gang for the better part of five years, a period filled with endless parties, epiphanies and breakdowns, emotional dramas of all sizes, and numerous raids and arrests, many of them on flimsy charges concocted by the local assistant district attorney, G. Gordon Liddy.[48]

Others contest this characterization of the Millbrook estate. For instance, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestTom Wolfe portrays Leary as interested only in research and not in using psychedelics merely for recreational purposes. According to "The Crypt Trip" chapter of Wolfe's book, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters visited the residence, and received a frosty reception.[49] Leary himself had flu on their arrival and wasn't able to play host.[50] He later met Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs quietly in his room and promised to remain allies in the years ahead.[51]

In 1964, Leary coauthored a book with Alpert and Ralph Metzner called The Psychedelic Experience based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In it, they wrote:

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of spacetime dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybinmescalineDMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.[52]

Repeated FBI raids ended the Millbrook era. Leary told author and Prankster Paul Krassner regarding a 1966 raid by Liddy, "He was a government agent entering our bedroom at midnight. We had every right to shoot him. But I've never owned a weapon in my life. I have never had and never will have a gun around."[53]

In September 1966, Leary gave an interview to Playboy magazine that became famous. In the interview, Leary claimed, among other things, that LSD could be used to cure homosexuality, telling a story about a lesbian who, according to him, became heterosexual after using the drug.[54][55] He later changed this view to a more liberal stance suggesting that homosexuality was not an illness in need of a cure.[56]

By 1966, recreational drug use, particularly of so-called psychedelic drugs, among America's youth had reached such proportions that serious concerns about the nature of these drugs and the impact their use was having on American culture were expressed in the national press and halls of government. In response to these concerns, Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut convened Senate subcommittee hearings in order to try to better understand the drug-use phenomenon, eventually with the intention of "stamping out" such usage through the criminalizing of these drugs. Leary was one of several expert witnesses called to testify at these hearings. In his testimony, Leary asserted that "the challenge of the psychedelic chemicals is not just how to control them, but how to use them." [57] He implored the subcommittee not to criminalize psychedelic drug use, which he felt would only serve to exponentially increase its usage among America's youth while removing the safeguards that controlled "set and setting" provided. When subcommittee member Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts asked Leary if LSD usage was "extremely dangerous," Leary replied, "Sir, the motor car is dangerous if used improperly...Human stupidity and ignorance is the only danger human beings face in this world."[58] To conclude his testimony, Leary suggested that legislation be enacted that would require LSD users to be adults who were competently trained and licensed, so that such individuals could use LSD "for serious purposes, such as spiritual growth, pursuit of knowledge, or their own personal development."[59] He presciently noted that without such licensing, the United States would be faced with "another era of prohibition."[60] Leary's testimony proved ineffective; on October 6, 1966, just months after the subcommittee hearings, LSD was banned in California, and by October 1968 LSD was banned in all states as a result of the passage of the Staggers-Dodd Bill.[61]

On September 19, 1966, Leary founded the League for Spiritual Discovery, a religion declaring LSD as its holy sacrament, in part as an unsuccessful attempt to maintain legal status for the use of LSD and other psychedelics for the religion's adherents, based on a "freedom of religion" argument. (The Brotherhood of Eternal Love subsequently considered Leary their spiritual leader, but The Brotherhood did not develop out of International Foundation for Internal Freedom.)

In 1966, Folkways Records recorded Leary reading from his book The Psychedelic Experience, and released the album The Psychedelic Experience: Readings from the Book "The Psychedelic Experience. A Manual Based on the Tibetan...".[62]

During late 1966 and early 1967, Leary toured college campuses presenting a multimedia performance entitled "The Death of the Mind", attempting an artistic replication of the LSD experience. He said that the League for Spiritual Discovery was limited to 360 members and was already at its membership limit, but he encouraged others to form their own psychedelic religions. He published a pamphlet in 1967 called Start Your Own Religion to encourage just that (see below under "writings").

Leary was invited to attend the January 14, 1967 Human Be-In by Michael Bowen, the primary organizer of the event,[63] a gathering of 30,000 hippies in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. In speaking to the group, Leary coined the famous phrase "Turn on, tune in, drop out". In a 1988 interview with Neil Strauss, he said that this slogan was "given to him" by Marshall McLuhan when the two had lunch in New York City, adding, "Marshall was very much interested in ideas and marketing, and he started singing something like, 'Psychedelics hit the spot / Five hundred micrograms, that's a lot,' to the tune of [the well-known Pepsi 1950s singing commercial]. Then he started going, 'Tune in, turn on, and drop out.'"[64]

At some point in the late 1960s, Leary moved to California and made many new friends in Hollywood. "When he married his third wife, Rosemary Woodruff, in 1967, the event was directed by Ted Markland of Bonanza. All the guests were on acid."[7]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Leary formulated his eight-circuit model of consciousness in collaboration with writer Brian Barritt, in which he wrote that the human mind and nervous system consisted of seven circuits which produce seven levels of consciousness when activated. This model was first published in his short essay "The Seven Tongues of God". The system was soon expanded to include an eighth circuit in a revised version first published in the 1973 pamphlet "Neurologic", written with Joanna Leary while he was in prison. This eighth-circuit idea was not exhaustively formulated until the publication of Exo-Psychology by Leary and Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger in 1977. Wilson contributed to the model after befriending Leary in the early 1970s, and used it as a framework for further exposition in his book Prometheus Rising, among other works.[65]

Leary believed that the first four of these circuits ("the Larval Circuits" or "Terrestrial Circuits") are naturally accessed by most people in their lifetimes, triggered at natural transition points in life such as puberty. The second four circuits ("the Stellar Circuits" or "Extra-Terrestrial Circuits"), Leary wrote, were "evolutionary offshoots" of the first four that would be triggered at transition points which humans might acquire if they evolve. These circuits, according to Leary, would equip humans to encompass life in space, as well as the expansion of consciousness that would be necessary to make further scientific and social progress. Leary suggested that some people may "shift to the latter four gears", i.e., trigger these circuits artificially via consciousness-altering techniques such as meditation and spiritual endeavors such as yoga, or by taking psychedelic drugs specific to each circuit. The feeling of floating and uninhibited motion experienced by users of marijuana is one thing that Leary cited as evidence for the purpose of the "higher" four circuits. In the eight-circuit model of consciousness, a primary theoretical function of the fifth circuit (the first of the four, according to Leary, developed for life in outer space) is to allow humans to become accustomed to life in a zero- or low-gravity environment.

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