Thursday, January 24, 2008

magic mushrooms and the sixties

Continued from: The Mushroom Gods

After their discovery in 1955, magic mushrooms remained the domain of middle-class botanists and adventurers who hightailed it to Mexico to follow R Gordon Wasson's trail

Meanwhile, Swiss biochemist Albert Hoffman, the creator of LSD, was studying the mushrooms in his lab and was soon to isolate the stable active ingredient, psilocybin.

By 1958 his company Sandoz were sending out little pink pills of psilocybin to curious psychologists and therapists all over the world.

The high priest
One such package arrived on the doorstep of Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary.

He soon became convinced that psilocybin (and later, LSD) presented an opportunity to map the uncharted frontiers of the mind. Over a 15-month period, he conducted a series of experiments into the psychedelic state.

Some were indulgent, some uneventful, some frankly rubbish. Some though, like the Good Friday experiment, revealed some interesting insights.

the good friday experiment
The setting was Boston University's Marsh Chapel. Leary and co divided 20 theology students into five groups of four. Half were given psilocybin, and the rest were given a placebo of nicotinic acid, which causes facial flushes, nothing else. It was a double blind study - neither the students nor the ex-school teachers who asked the 147-part questionnaire after the experiment knew who had been given what. Within an hour, though, it was pretty clear:

"While half sat attentively listening to the Easter service that was being piped in from the main chapel, the others were all over the place, lying on benches moaning, or wandering around fixating on the various religious icons. One sat at an organ, playing weird, exciting chords." (from Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens)

Of the 10 who downed the nicotinic acid, only one reported anything close to a religious experience. Of the 10 who took psilocybin, nine reported having a mystical experience.

turn on, tune in, drop out
Unfortunately, the "miracle of Marsh Chapel" finally broke Harvard's patience. Leary was soon sacked and, with his catchy mantra: "Turn on, tune in, drop out", spearheaded a psychedelic-soaked counter-culture revolution in 60's America. It would culminate in the Summer Of Love in 1967, and then go rapidly pear-shaped with media hysteria, Leary's arrest, and the banning of psilocybin (along with LSD) in 1968.


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