From Resistance to Renaissance: The Legacy of Dr. Timothy Leary

Dr. Timothy Leary at home in Millbrook, New York circa 1966 (Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images)

Approximately fifty years ago, Dr. Timothy Leary told the world’s younger generations that they had been born into an insane asylum.” The good news was that it was “simple and obvious to take advantage of the insanity around you to make your escape.” In the mid-1960s, Dr. Leary’s attitude toward American society in general, and specifically his faith in the therapeutic potentials of psychedelic drugs caused the psychologist, psychedelic researcher, lecturer, advocate for alternative lifestyles, and author to be dismissed from his position at Harvard University, ridiculed by his peers, and relentlessly targeted by an American government desperate to discredit him.

Branded “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon, Dr. Leary believed his problems stemmed from the fact that he was “in the unfortunate position of being twenty years ahead of my time.” His estimation may have been a little less than accurate. Socially, politically, and spiritually he was light years ahead of the status quo. Yet in 2019, the mention of his name still evokes nervous laughter as well as a host of other negative reactions from young and old alike who know nothing about him except that he advocated the use of LSD, and how could such a person be anything but a crackpot, a charlatan, and a criminal?

Was Timothy Leary’s position on psychedelic drugs the main reason that the author of thirty books and four hundred research papers, articles, and essays was considered such a threat to mainstream society during the 1960s? From their standpoint, advising young America to “turn on, tune in, drop out” was recommending the reckless use of psychedelic drugs, and the abandonment of family, society, morals, education, work, and every other responsibility. Yet as frightening as this misinterpretation sounded at face value, the real meaning of Dr. Leary’s misrepresented words posed a much bigger challenge to the normalcy of established society. What he was actually telling young people to do was to look within themselves, discover their own divinity, and detach themselves from the constrictions of social and material struggles. Mainstream America had every reason to worry.

In his 1966 recording, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, Dr. Leary defined turning on as looking within, finding wisdom, and becoming aware of different levels of consciousness. He likened it to a form of sensitivity training. Young people were encouraged to turn their parents on as well — not with drugs, but by dialoguing with them, and helping them open up to their own possibilities. In his book, Politics of Ecstasy, he advised parents to “sit down with a youngster and relax and tune into a new theme” because “the best way for any parent to dissolve fear and develop trust in the youngsters” was to ask them about their music, their philosophy, and benefit from “their timeless point of view.”

To tune in, he explained, was to begin to invest one’s internal energy in a harmonious exchange with the external environment. Everyone needed to find his or her own divinity, move out of old patterns, and refashion their physical surroundings into external representations of who they really were. And the way to drop out was to “lovingly, gracefully detach yourself from the insane rituals and social pressures which surround you. Leave all situations and relationships that do not make sense to you” but remain aware that “you cannot drop out externally until you have detached yourself internally.”

One can imagine that in 2019, these recommendations still wouldn’t be easily digested by some of the powers that be, but in the late 1960s, what horrified the old order the most about the man who said his desire in life was “to expand and elevate the consciousness of the whole human race” was his advice to “drop out of the old man’s game.” In a talk given at UCLA in January 1967, when resistance to the Vietnam War was gaining momentum, Timothy Leary cautioned students against the “menopausal mentality” that made old men send younger ones out to die in wars. He told them, “Men seek external power when they’ve lost the internal power.”

While the establishment argued that dropping out was nothing more than an escape, Dr. Leary insisted it was anything but a withdrawal from reality. The real addictive process was created by the society that rewarded conformity and compliance with bigger salaries, new cars, larger homes, and coveted promotions. Refusing to play the game anymore was the harder choice. The true dropouts had to be creative. They had to figure out what life was about, and what had meaning for them, and then find lifestyles and means of making a living that did not compromise their principles. “As you drop out,” Dr. Leary predicted, “you will find that you do nothing which is not an act of beauty.”

Did this formula for escaping the “conforming, rote lockstep which we call American society” have to include the use of psychedelic drugs? Couldn’t the expansion of conscious be achieved without chemicals? And why did Timothy Leary, a man approaching the age of fifty in the late 1960s focus almost exclusively on the younger generation as if there were an age limit on the ability to accept change? Wasn’t he himself proof enough that young people were not the only ones capable of being receptive to new ideas? Neuroethology, the study of the effects of the nervous system on animal behavior and its role in solving evolutionary problems, provides some insight and possibly some answers to these questions. Ethology was a science that fascinated Dr. Leary. He found the process of psychological imprinting particularly intriguing.

During a talk given at Cooper Union in 1964, Dr. Leary explained the phenomenon of psychological imprinting. This biochemical programming occurs within a critical period when the nervous system is open to registering certain external stimuli. For some species, the critical period may last for only hours after birth, while for others it may last for days. Imprinting results in life-long irreversible conditioning. Once the critical period is over, imprinting can no longer take place. To illustrate this phenomenon, Dr. Leary described an experiment involving newborn ducklings that were shown a moving orange basketball instead of a mother duck. Wherever the basketball was rolled along the floor, the ducks followed. Once the critical period was over, researchers gave the ducklings the opportunity to interact with a live mother duck. They ignored her, and continued to follow the basketball. Dr. Leary described the result of this experiment as both “amusing”, and “terrifying.” The mind, he added, will go to great lengths to rationalize and protect early accidental imprints. And then he asked his audience, “What accidental orange basketballs have you and I been exposed to early in life??”

Dr. Leary theorized that each generation harassed and persecuted “exactly those men that succeeding generations will revere” due to reasons that were purely neurological. The adult nervous system could not tolerate being challenged by ideas and methods that went against the human being’s dependence upon the imprinted symbol system of his society. He believed it took one generation for new ideas to become accepted.

In Politics of Ecstasy, Dr. Leary described the young people of the 1960s as “different” in that they were not destined to “grow up like Mom and Dad.” He insisted this could not merely be attributed to any sociological trends. It was an “evolutionary lurch.” These young people deserved the support of their elders rather than their scorn. This younger generation was also open to the use of psychedelic drugs while their parents’ generation found it impossible to accept the idea of using drugs to expand their consciousness. Middle-aged and older adults were conditioned to associate only two things with drugs: “doctor-disease” and “dope fiend-crime.”

Since psychological imprinting is irreversible, and can occur only during the first few days of life, what could be done to remedy the effects of negative imprints, or the consequences of the absence of imprinting? In his research, Timothy Leary concluded psychedelic drugs played a role in postponing or influencing imprinting by delaying the focus that resulted in the imprinting process. Under the influence of LSD, commitments to past external imprints were temporarily lost.

Dr. Leary described the human brain as a “camera with literally billions of lenses” that continuously processed unfathomable amounts of information. During their lifetimes, human beings interpreted experiences by the same old imprint “snapshots” imposed upon them directly after birth. Psychedelic re-imprinting could temporarily suspend these snapshots and allow new snapshots to “come to rest”. However, the old imprint would not be totally lost due to years of conditioning, and the rituals associated with them. Reprogramming the nervous system with LSD required at least five to eight days between doses. This refractory period allowed the new snapshots sufficient time to “harden.”

Dr. Leary lecturing students and faculty at University of Rochester in Strong Auditorium on November 30, 1966. (Photo by Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Dr. Leary’s personal experience with psychedelics began in 1960 with psilocybin, the naturally occurring compound produced by over two hundred species of mushrooms. “I learned more about psychology, about the human mind, about the human situation in the five hours after eating these mushrooms,” he said, “than I had learned studying and doing research, and treating people in psychotherapy.” During a television interview on The Merv Griffin Show in 1966, Dr. Leary explained his enthusiasm concerning the potentials of psychedelic drugs was fueled by his dissatisfaction with modern psychology. After working in his chosen field for fifteen years, he arrived at “the sorry conclusion that psychology wasn’t doing much to solve the emotional or mental problems of the human race, particularly the American people.” He told his host he had taken LSD over three hundred times.

Timothy Leary maintained that the alteration of consciousness could only be studied from within. Observing the effects of psychedelic drugs from the outside would yield negligible results. “No more dosing up the passive subjects.” The scientist had to be willing to take the “magic molecule” himself. In the early 1960s, his employer, Harvard University, disagreed with this strategy. Between 1960 and 1962, Dr. Leary and his research partner, Dr. Richard Alpert, conducted a series of experiments on volunteers to determine the psychological effects of psilocybin. The Harvard Psilocybin Project came to an end for a number of reasons, none the least of which was the fact that the researchers conducted their experiments while they themselves were under the influence of psychedelics. The university charged Drs. Leary and Alpert with not following the institution’s established research protocols, and accused them of promoting the recreational use of psychedelic drugs. Both were dismissed from their positions at Harvard.

As LSD gained popularity and notoriety in the world outside of medical research (partially because of the Harvard research project scandal), the Swiss chemical researcher who discovered it in 1938 began referring to the drug as “my problem child.” While Albert Hofmann was not surprised that the substance which had such profound effects on mental perception was of interest to those outside of medical science, he never imagined that LSD would become a recreational drug. Hofmann was alarmed by its “careless, medically unsupervised use,” but held fast to his belief that when it was used wisely under proper medical supervision, “this problem child could become a wonder child.”

Albert Hofmann, 1976. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sandoz Laboratories, where Hofmann did his research, had concerns of their own. For nearly twenty years, they had supplied LSD, free of charge, to qualified researchers throughout the world. In a letter issued in August 1965, the director of the pharmaceutical department at Sandoz said the company would stop distributing the drug. Like Albert Hofmann, they said they could not have “envisaged” its “exploitation.” They had made the patented drug available to clinical researchers because the initial experiments conducted on animals and humans at Sandoz had “pointed to the important role that this substance could play as an investigational tool in neurological research and in psychiatry.”

In spite of the American government’s attempts to discredit, stop, and silence him, Timothy Leary continued to be a strong advocate for psychedelic research. In 1966, he went to Washington D.C. to testify as an expert witness before a senate subcommittee investigating recreational drug use among American young people. Rather than prohibiting psychedelics, he recommended more studies, and suggested legislation requiring LSD users to be trained licensed adults. When Ted Kennedy belittled his testimony and asked him if LSD was dangerous, Dr. Leary reminded the senator that cars were dangerous too, if they weren’t used properly.

In October 1968, Congress passed the Staggers-Dodd Bill as an amendment of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Possession of LSD became a federal crime. To the old order for whom psychedelics represented the counterculture, radicalism, and a threat to their power, it was imperative to paint Dr. Leary as a quack and a menace irresponsibly handing out LSD and catastrophic advice to the youth of America.

During his Cooper Union talk in 1964, Dr. Leary had warned that there was no room for reckless administration of psychedelics. “You should be very careful with whom you take LSD, and where you take LSD, and you should be very well-prepared…” In an interview for Playboy Magazine in 1966, when he was asked what he thought of casual sex catalyzed by the use of LSD he replied, “Nothing good can happen with LSD if it’s used crudely, or for power or manipulative purposes.” In Politics of Ecstasy he wrote, “The danger of LSD is not physical or psychological, but social-political… The political and ethical controversies over psychedelic plants are caused by our ignorance about what these substances do… The greatest enemies of mankind are ignorance and fear. What are the protections? Accurate information openly shared, and calm courageous response to the evidence.”

The real reason the establishment considered LSD dangerous, he told students at UCLA in 1967, was because it worked. They feared it because “it throws into different perspective the rituals and the orthodoxy and the structure of the time.” According to Dr. Leary, there had always been (and always would be) two societies “uneasily” sharing this planet — “the overground and the underground.” The latter were those alienated from the established power either by deprivation or by choice. Pressure from that underground “builds up gradually over decades.”

Dr. Timothy Leary at home in Berkeley, Ca. in February 1969. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

By the second half of the 1960s, that underground pressure was giving birth to a cultural revolution. Mainstream Americans were not prepared for this, and they were not prepared to consider the possibility that the drug laws of the time might be in violation of the 1st and 5th Amendments. And referring to LSD as a “sacrament” did little to boost Dr. Leary’s popularity with the establishment. Even more distressing to the old order was his revelation that God wanted intelligence from human beings, rather than mere obedience. Gaining more intelligence led human beings to become more religious because “the smarter you are, the more you wanna know who did it!”

Although Timothy Leary had no qualms about telling Americans young and old that any laws violating the sanctity of the human body needed to be dismissed, he was not insinuating that those who used consciousness-expanding drugs irresponsibly were above the law. “Can you prevent your fellow man from altering his consciousness if he thereby poses a threat to others or to the harmonious development of society? Yes… but the burden of proof… must be on society.” He said, “If the things I put in me lead me to rush around outside disturbing Caesar’s order, arrest me. If the things I put in my body cause me to be untidy or to break laws out there, I have no defense. There are plenty of laws to protect public decorum and highway / byway safety… but in the sanctity of my own home with my family, my co-religionists… that’s our business.”

In 1970, Timothy Leary was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the possession of a small amount of marijuana, due in part to President Nixon’s war on drugs which increased the penalties and the number of incarcerations for drug offenders. After serving six months, he escaped. When he was recaptured and brought back to California in 1973, he was placed in solitary confinement and more time was added to his sentence. In 1976, almost two years after Nixon’s resignation, Dr. Leary was released from prison by order of Governor Jerry Brown. Two decades later, Nixon’s former domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, admitted the war on drugs had in actuality been Nixon’s private war on anti-Vietnam War leftists, the counterculture, and black Americans. He wanted mainstream America to associate all war resistors and hippies with LSD and marijuana, and all black Americans with heroin.

Until his death from prostate cancer in 1996, Dr. Leary continued to lecture, debate, write, and take psychedelic drugs. He also continued to insist that the government had no right to tell citizens what to do with their bodies and minds. He stressed that what he was advocating was “Think for yourself and question authority,” and not the idea that chemicals were the only keys to an open mind.

More than half a century has passed since Timothy Leary was dismissed from Harvard University and an entire generation of young Americans became aware of LSD. For the children and the grandchildren of the 1960s cultural revolution, the debate continues and sharply conflicting opinions abound. The man who once encouraged the planet to turn on, tune in, and drop out has been called brilliant, evil, a prophet, a charlatan, a philosopher, a crackpot, dangerous, holy, a criminal, a saint. To this day, some blame him for causing psychedelics to become discredited in the eyes of the American government and medical science. The problem child that Albert Hofmann had hoped would become a wonder child remains an orphan. In 1970, the DEA classified LSD and all psychedelics as Schedule 1 drugs, chemical substances with no accepted medical use in treatment, high potentials for abuse, and unsafe to administer even under medical supervision. Psychedelic research came close to a standstill for the following two decades, but began to slowly pick up again during the 1990s. Studies conducted to determine the therapeutic effects of psychedelics on anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses, anxiety in autistic adults, depression, cluster headaches, posttraumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, opiate addiction, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders have yielded promising results warranting further research.

It has taken far longer than the “one generation” Timothy Leary predicted would be necessary for the true potentials of psychedelic drugs to be recognized and accepted by mainstream society, but as Aldous Huxley once observed, facts cannot be ignored out of existence. Thanks to meticulous scientific research and education, we are learning that psychedelics do indeed show the potential to alleviate some aspects of physical and mental suffering. Americans young and old are gradually changing their minds about consciousness altering drugs.

MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), The Beckley Foundation, Heffter Research Institute, ICEERS (International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research), and Clusterbusters are among the many organizations working worldwide to change perceptions of psychedelic drugs, and reform drug laws. Determined to find new and more effective treatments for the debilitating pain of cluster headaches, advocates from Clusterbusters convinced the administration at Harvard Medical School to undertake their first psychedelic research project in forty years. The results of their clinical study which appeared in the peer-reviewed medical journal Neurology in 2006 were positive, and resulted in further studies involving the use of psychedelics in the treatment of cluster headaches.

Founded in 1986, MAPS was established for the purpose of conducting ethical research in protected environments to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of psychedelic drugs and marijuana with the goal of making these drugs legally available for patients to safely benefit from. In 2018, MAPS raised 27 million dollars for FDA phase 3 research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. Researchers believe the drug may be approved for use in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy by 2021.

The man who encouraged a generation of young people to think for themselves and question their leaders also advised them to “take responsibility for making your own life beautiful.” The universe, according to Dr. Leary, is an “intelligence test” and “the more you use your head, the more in tune you get with the original purpose, design, and goal of the genetic code” and “if there’s anything the genetic code seems to want, it’s to keep itself going.”

(Photo by A Jones/Getty Images)

In any decade, an individual declaring himself a member of “an ancient trade union of spiritual teachers” working toward expanding and elevating the consciousness of the whole human race would, at best, be the object of ridicule. During the 1960s, overground America’s disdain for the underground outcast they labeled an insane dangerous drug guru manifested itself in a lot more than simple ridicule. Now the notion that parents need to communicate with their youngsters and be a source of emotional support to dissolve fear and establish trust is hardly a revolutionary idea. It’s common sense. Today, challenging aspects of society that are unacceptable, and striving to live in a harmonious exchange with the environment are not just counterculture values. And the desire to pursue a creative meaningful beautiful life is not perceived as a threat to social order.

Because of his enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs, and his belief that each of us is responsible for creating his or her own reality, Timothy Leary will always be a controversial and revolutionary figure, lauded and reviled. To Richard Nixon, the paranoid president who saw enemies everywhere he looked, Dr. Leary was indeed a dangerous man. At the other end of the spectrum, the ethnobotanist and lecturer Terence McKenna once described Dr. Leary as “a guy who’s probably made more people happy, arguably, than anyone else in history.” Both men were right, of course, because the truth is often found somewhere in between two extremes. And truth is always stranger than fiction.

Read on:

LSD — My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann

Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary

Life-long Writer / Bluegrass Guitar Picker / Hippie Grandma diving head first into ‘Act Three’ all on one cup of coffee a day

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