"Turn on, tune in, drop out." The author of this mid-1960s catchphrase, Timothy Leary"a Harvard professor-turned-enthusiast of psychedelic drugs"had high hopes for a world with hallucinogens. Leary even imagined that psychedelics like LSD and MDMA might help bring peace to a Vietnam War"weary world. The era was the heyday for hallucinogenic drug research conducted in the medical lab"and at home. "Behind the Shrooms"Part 1," the first in a two-part series from Research Radio, explores the story of hallucinogens since then.
It's been a tumultuous ride for the science of psychedelic drugs. When LSD was first synthesized in the 1940s, many scientists hoped such a substance could be used to model psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Interest in the drugs peaked in the 1960s, when hippies and yippies were turned on to their recreational and spiritual potential. Then, in 1962, a scandal broke over widespread administration of the experimental sleep-aid thalidomide to pregnant women. The drug was implicated in birth defects in nearly 10,000 babies worldwide, resulting in a massive overhaul of regulations on research on experimental drugs such as thalidomide"or LSD. The scandal, combined with rampant use of psychedelic drugs mostly by white middle-class youth in the years following, prompted a backlash within the political and medical communities that virtually halted drug research for the next 30 years.
But now, research on psychedelic drugs is making a comeback, and Nick Langlitz, assistant professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research, has been paying attention. Langlitz, who joined The New School in 2010, has spent much of his academic career studying those who study drugs.
"In the 1960s, hallucinogens became an icon of the counterculture," says Langlitz. "The idea was to trip on LSD and lose your ego boundaries. For the hippies, it became a gesture of opposition to 'the Establishment,' but it also signaled unity"a coming together of people and cultures." Despite the initial decline in research on hallucinogens, Langlitz, whose anthropological inquiry has focused on the connection between their neuropsychopharmacological investigation and new forms of mysticism, can conceive of a healthy future for the field.
Though Leary's catchphrase implored people to indulge in hallucinogens to "drop out" or, as Langlitz puts it, "turn their back on capitalism and the competitive logic of modern society," contemporary drug researchers have a different goal in sight. Over the last decade, psychiatrists at New York University or Johns Hopkins University have been experimenting with psilocybin"the active ingredient found in "magic mushrooms." Studies have led them to conclude that further investigation could lead to alternative therapies for people struggling with depression and alcoholism and other drug dependencies. More recently, both universities have initiated clinical trials to aid terminal cancer patients suffering from end-of-life anxiety. So far, results have been positive, and the news media"in contrast to its earlier unfavorable views on psychedelic drug research, which contributed to its breakdown in the 1960s"now reviews such clinical trials with sympathy and optimism.
Langlitz can imagine that one day hallucinogens might be used regularly in such therapeutic settings to induce controlled trips in clients, thereby enriching sessions. Such a scenario faces many political, cultural, and economic obstacles, though. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, may be reluctant to underwrite research on products that consumers would use only a few times a year.
To read more about Langlitz's look behind the scenes of hallucinogen research, visit his website or read his new book Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain.
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Ready for round two? Last week, Research Radio released "Behind the Shrooms," a first installment in a two-part series that details the last half-century of psychedelic research. In this second episode, we sit down once again with New School for Social Research anthropologist Nick Langlitz to talk about how 1960's counterculture colored popular perception of psychedelics, and what a therapeutic future for drugs like MDMA and LSD would look like."Not all students interested in psychedelics back then 'turned on, tuned in, and dropped out' like Timothy Leary asked them to," says Langlitz, who foresees a growing future for the study of psychedelics. Many finished their dissertations, got their PhD's, and"with federal restrictions on the drugs lifted in recent years"are now continuing research in the field that initially sparked so much controversy. Combine that with wealthy individuals in the tech industry (the late Steve Jobs was but one of many who publicly endorse LSD experimentation) to support the research and now is a moment of opportunity.
However, whether the future holds a prescription remedy housed in a therapeutic setting for maladies like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as counseling sessions to ease the fears of end-stage cancer patients, is still up in the air.
Research Radio at The New School for Social Research analyzes the past half-century of psychedelic research in an expansive segment featuring New School anthropologist Nick Langlitz. The program details studies focusing on the medical potential of psychedelics, the birth of the psychedelic counterculture, and the future of clinical research into substances including MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin.