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The Harvard Psilocybin Project

Leary and Alpert

In 1960, two psychologists working at Harvard University in the Centre for Research and Personality, ordered psilocybin from the Swiss company Sandoz. Their names were Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, and their experiments would put them on the map forever. The scientists were both personal advocates for discovery and use of psychedelics, with their academic work involving psilocybin, LSD, and mascaline.


Mystical trials

What separated their series of experiments to previous ones, was the shift away from purely safety and physiology. They wanted to draw focus on the mental and emotional impact of the drug, creating an appeal to intellectuals and artists at the time. The overall aim of the trials was to look into the potential of using psilocybin as a solution to emotional problems in the West.


The pair set up a series of experiments, involving 167 subjects from a variety of backgrounds. Apparently “practically anyone” who was willing could join in on the trial, testing samples of the synthesized psychedelics. They believed that “negative reactions” to the drug such as paranoia and psychosis, were largely due to the surroundings of the taker. Therefore, all trials were conducted in a soothing controlled environment, described as “spacious, pleasant and aesthetic.” Each individual was in full control of their own dosage and no one took drugs with strangers. Interestingly, Leary and Alpert usually took the drugs with their subjects. The experiences of the participants after their trip were reported back and evaluated.


The results are in

It was found that 75 percent of subjects found the experience generally pleasant, with 69 percent finding a broadening of awareness due to the trip. When the study reached conclusion, 95 percent of individuals reported participating had changed their lives for the better. These positive results lead to a suggestion by the pair for future psychotherapy, using psilocybin as a mind opening substance to work through your problems.


Inmates going on a trip

In the following two years, further experiments were carried out. Leary and Albert’s second project, The Concord Prison Experiment, explored the role of psilocybin in the rehabilitation of inmates. They conducted an experiment where the inmates would visualise themselves in a “cops-and-robbers game”. In the scientist's view, all human behaviour consisted of “games”, each with its own rules, jargon and rituals. They believed that all Westerners were playing games in their everyday lives, although they merely couldn’t see it, getting bogged down with one particular role.


They wanted the individuals to use this therapy to break free of their assigned role, with the aim to reduce relapse into criminal behaviour. The short term results seemed positive, with a reduction of 39 percent reincarceration rate after six months, compared to the prison records average. Though this experiment was carried out on 33 participants, a small sample size. To see if this therapy truly works a longer and larger study needs to take place.


God is everywhere

Another famous experiment in following years was ‘The Marsh Chapel Experiment’. Here, 10 students were given psilocybin and another 10 a placebo just before a Good Friday service. The purpose was to determine if the drug could trigger profound religious feelings. Eight out of the 10 who had taken the drug reported a ‘mystical’ experience, with reports of the participants walking around announcing things like “Oh the glory!” and “God is everywhere”.


Gone but not forgotten

Even though the series of experiments had the intention of use for the greater good, other professors at Harvard had safety and legitimacy concerns about them. Both lead scientists were fired from their academic positions at Harvard due to the controversy surrounding their project. According to The Psychedelic Science Review, Leary was fired for not fulfilling his teaching duties, and Alpert for administering psychedelic drugs to an undergraduate student.


Although their Harvard careers came to a swift halt in 1962, their philosophy carried on influencing other psychological research over the globe. On campus students were unhappy, organising public protests to express their outcry. In a letter to the University, the decision to fire the professors is branded as “timidity unworthy of a university which claims to encourage free inquiry and exploration.” Not only did their firing shake up academic settings, but also the drug culture of America, with Leary and Alpert becoming household names. The average citizen had now been turned onto the idea of psychedelics being used for spiritual and moral growth, increasing the consciousness of the nation.


We need more studies

Research into the effects of psilocybin is a field full of potential and promise for medicine. We do not yet understand the full extent of the short and long term impacts of the drug. Studies like these, although short lived, are key in getting closer to that answer. Hopefully as more awareness gathers about the abundance of positive medical use of this mind altering substance, larger and longer clinical trials can take place.

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