Tripping on Science: The Psychedelic Community Contests Terms

The full text of the article can be accessed at Despite their common, and mostly fringe area of concern, the psychedelic subculture — whose kaleidoscopic reflection includes Johns Hopkins scientists, transpersonal psychologists, dozens of independent (non-affiliated) researchers, writers, visionary artists, and the users themselves — is often at odds with itself. Above board researchers take pride in their work, adhering to the strict peer review process that all science is subject to. But to some, the work of psychedelics is the work of the spirit, of the non-rational, of connecting ourselves to something that may well not be testable or empirically verifiable. There are also clashes of personality, of ideologies, and of intention. Sometimes it’s simply a disagreement over words, what they mean, and how they should be used. At the heart of a contest of terms within a very small subculture is another more essential divergence, one that reflects a wider cultural conflict between science and spirituality. One of the most remarkable developments in the past ten years is the trending toward acceptance in the scientific community of research involving psychedelic drugs after an almost forty year period of disregard. But like other recent fields of research, such as work done with stem cells, DNA, and even evolutionary biology, researchers find themselves up against ideas of spirituality. The word psychedelic was coined in an attempt to more appropriately categorize those drugs capable of turning off what Aldous Huxley referred to as a filter in our brain, allowing a more undiluted experience of reality to flow in. In response to a frustration that Aldous Huxley and his friend Humphry Osmond had with words like “hallucinogen,” Osmond came up with psychedelic. In a 1957 article for the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Osmond wrote, “I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents under discussion: a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision…. My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind manifesting.” As psychedelic research once again enters the mainstream scientific community, disagreements have emerged over appropriate terminology. Peter Bebergal provides a fascinating history of terms like “psychedelic,” “entheogen,” and “hallucinogen,” and explains how the increasing acceptance of psychedelics as scientific and therapeutic tools is helping create a more spiritual science–and, for that matter, a more scientific spirituality.