The Harvard Psilocybin, Marsh Chapel and Concord Prison Experiments – Tuning In, Turning On, Dropping Out Both Metaphorically And Scientifically

A few weeks ago I attended and spoke at a great Neuroscience Conference at the University of Pretoria, and one of the talks that was excellent and held everyone’s attention was by Dr Michael Knott from the University of Namibia, who gave a tour-de-force synopsis on mind-altering compounds and their capacity for social engineering. At the same time I finished reading for the second time a fascinating book, Rational Mysticism, by science writer John Horgan (author of the The End of Science), in which he examined the work and theories of both scientists and new-age gurus attempting to explain the meaning of life, and the limits of our conscious understanding of it, by using mind-altering / psychedelic substances. Both of these got me thinking again about the controversial drug experiments known as the Harvard Psilocybin, Marsh Chapel and Concord Prison experiments, which took place at Harvard University in the early 1960’s, lead by pyschologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, and which had dramatic effects on both American society and culture at the time, and on how we conduct research experiments from a process and ethical perspective.

While mind-altering / hallucinogenic / psychedelic substances such as psilocybin (a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in more than 200 species of mushrooms) mescaline, peyote and ayahusca have been ingested by folk for hundreds, if not thousands, of years as part of tribal practice and personal desire to ‘get high’, in the 1930’s psychedelic substances such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) were artificially created for the first time under laboratory conditions, which produced similar psychological effects as these ‘natural’ psychedelic compounds. These included altered thinking processes, closed and open eye visual hallucinations, synaesthesia (the production of a sensation relating to one sensory organ by the stimulation of another), an altered sense of time, and spiritual experiences. These substances were mostly legal up until the 1960’s, and interest in them was heightened in the 1950’s by writers such as Aldous Huxley, whose book The Doors of Perception described what were to him life-changing effects (in his case positive reported changes) of ingesting psychedelics, and was a bestseller. It stimulated interest in researchers in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s (and still does today) because of the potential capacity of psychedelic drugs to enhance our understanding of the pathophysiology of mental disorders such as schizophrenia, and for their potential capacity for therapeutic social engineering such as reducing recidivism rate in habitual criminal offenders.

Between 1960 and 1962, two Harvard University academics, Dr Timothy Leary and Dr Richard Alpert, performed a number of experiments that were to become famous (or infamous) both for their findings and for their effect on society and research methodology. In the Harvard Psilocybin experiment, students at the University were asked to volunteer for the trial and were given LSD and psilocybin, and the psychological effects of ingesting these drugs were monitored by Leary and Alpert and their co-workers. Similarly, in the Concord Prison experiment psilocybin was given to prisoners at the Concord State prison, and the acute effects of the psychedelic drug on the prisoners, and the long term effects of ingesting the drug on recidivism rate were monitored. In the Marsh Chapel experiment (also known as the Good Friday experiment), divinity students were given psilocybin prior to the Good Friday church service, and its effect on the level of the student’s religious / spiritual experience were monitored during and after the church service. It was reported by the researchers that the outcome of all these experiments was overwhelmingly positive, with the students describing increased clarity of mind and a life-changing expansion of their conscious perception of life, the prisoners being more repentant for their crimes and less likely to repeat their offences, and the religious students describing profoundly intense spiritual experiences during and after the service.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), while these experiments generated enormous public interest, and made Leary and Alpert famous, the consequences of them were ultimately negative, and as the scientific spotlight fell on the methodology of each trial, questions about their scientific rigour were raised. The researchers used the same drugs as the volunteers during all the trials – the researchers suggested that this was to enable to them to qualitatively understand what the volunteers were feeling – but the obvious point raised was how they could have adequately recorded what the volunteers were experiencing if the scientists were intoxicated themselves. They also chose not to report on the negative hallucinations experienced by some of the volunteers, with some of the subjects apparently experiencing psychological deterioration as a result of the trial which required therapeutic intervention, and further studies showed that the recidivist rate of the prisoners was no different, or may have even been higher, after participating in the trial. They also did not store the drugs ‘under lock and key’, and some of the researchers kept some of the trial drugs for their own recreational use, and actively encouraged the use of the psychedelic drugs to their students in routine classes and in after-hours social events. When word of the positive experiences of the trials spread across the Harvard campus, the number of students wanting to volunteer for the trial increased dramatically, and a thriving psychedelic drug culture developed on the University campus that spread into the neighbouring community, and eventually across other University campuses and American culture as part of the 1960’s growing anti-establishment and anti-war culture which was occurring at the time.

Being concerned about these research methodology issues and developing drug culture, the Harvard University senior management folk requested that these studies be halted, and that Leary and Alpert stop using the clinical trial drugs for their own personal gratification. When they refused, they were fired by the University. This did not deter them though, as both became more interested in being ‘salesmen’ for the drug and its positive psychological effects rather than researching its putative psychophysiological effects in controlled laboratory conditions. Leary started up a number of communes in both Mexico and the USA after leaving the employment of Harvard University, where LSD and other psychedelic drug taking was encouraged, and in 1966 developed the ‘League for Spiritual Discovery’ to represent his interest and ideas. When the USA government and law enforcement officials realized the danger of what was occurring and that psychedelic drug use was spreading across the country, they banned the use, sale, and scientific testing of all psychedelic agents. Unfortunately this appeared to increase Leary’s fame rather than decrease it, and he became popular as a TV and radio talk-show guest, where he espoused the use of psychedelic drugs in these public forums (Alpert eventually moved to a commune in India and renamed himself as Ram Dass), which resulted in interest in the drugs similarly increasing rather than decreasing. The Beatles song, ‘Come Together’ was apparently written as a tribute to Leary and his ‘work’, and President Richard Nixon describing him as the ‘most dangerous man in America’, due to the impact his ‘marketing’ was having on drug use and counter-culture development across the USA. Leary was increasingly investigated by the FBI, until eventually he was jailed for several years for using and selling psychedelic drugs. By the time he was released in the 1970’s, the 1960’s anti-establishment drug era was over, and while he wrote prolifically and still ‘sold’ his psychedelic message after his release from prison, his influence waned, and as LSD and other psychedelic drugs were eventually banned throughout the world for both recreational use and scientific investigation purposes, their use and popularity became attenuated over time.

So what lessons can be learned from this astonishing period of scientific research and its impact on social culture. Firstly, that all Universities need to be very rigorous in their control and management of scientific studies in a pre-emptive manner. Currently research in most respectable Universities and countries throughout the world (as Harvard University is and always has been) needs to go through ethical clearances before they are allowed to begin, and if such processes had been in place at the time of these experiments and / or been stringently adhered to, the trials would probably not have been allowed to go ahead, and if they had done so, would have occurred under far more rigidly controlled laboratory conditions. Secondly, there is always the danger of loss of objectivity when ‘maverick’ researchers with their own agenda initiate and control experiments which have a large degree of self-interest involved in their development. While Leary and Alpert may have started their studies with the idea of using the psychedelic drugs to help understand psychological disorders and as a positive social reinforcement therapeutic tool, they appeared thereafter to become too interested in the benefits of psychedelic drugs to themselves as individuals rather than to their work as scientists, and therefore lost the required detachment from the trials, and dispassionate analysis of the trial results, which is how all scientists need to operate and perform trials they are involved in or manage. Thirdly, it showed the danger also of maverick scientists using social media – in those days the radio and television, now a huge variety of external media and self-marketing tools which are available to do so – to promote their own particular message, particularly to a susceptible audience. We are currently ‘awash’ with scientists marketing their own agenda and perspectives via the social media outlets, with no ‘peer review’ of what they say or how they describe their research findings or subjective beliefs. Finally, it was a salutary lesson in how poorly performed and marketed science can actively damage the scientific endeavour from the context that these psychedelic drugs may have had the capacity to enable us scientists to better understand psychological disorders and perhaps even to examine their capacity for therapeutic social engineering, as Michael Knott suggested in his great talk at the conference I attended, although of course (as a perspicacious neuroscience student attending pointed out), the concept of social engineering capacity is fraught with moral and ethical issues beyond just that of drug use.

John Horgan, in his book Rational Mysticism, pointed out that there will always be an interest in most folk to understand better the limits of their conscious perception of life and the reality of the life they live in, and potentially in some folk to escape from their reality (it was suggested in Horgan’s book that that the desire for intoxication is the ‘fourth’ basic drive after hunger, thirst and sex), hence the massive public interest the research work of Leary and Alpert generated in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, however, while Leary’s catch-phrase for describing (in his mind) the positive effects of psychedelic drug – ‘Tune in, turn on, drop out’ – was meant ostensibly to describe the effect of using the drug on expanding one’s understanding of life and one’s part in it, unfortunately what was the ultimate result of his studies and the marketing of them to the general public was that the thing that most ‘dropped out’ was the capacity of scientists to be able to study the effect of these drugs on basic brain function for the last fifty years, which may potentially have hindered our understanding of basic brain function and psychological and psychiatric disorder pathophysiology. There is therefore also an important lesson for all scientists who attempt to ‘market’ their own research finding ‘too hard and too fast’, using the increased capacity of modern social network and other external media sites, from this astonishing epoch of scientific and social / behavioural experimentation, which is still impacting us as a society, and how we scientists ‘do business’ today.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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