Timothy Leary: LSD Forschung und magische Pilze

Written by: Marvin Benthien



Time to read 9 min

Today we would like to look at a very interesting personality - Timothy Leary. He was an American psychologist and author in the 1960s and much later. Of course, we're not doing a boring history article about another professor who did something exciting back then. No, Leary arouses our very special interest because he was anything but boring or ordinary.

When you think of the US author and psychologist, you don't exactly think of the fact that he caused quite a stir in his day and redefined the term "polarize", so to speak. As if the 1960s weren't turbulent enough, Timothy Leary caused even more of a stir. We will now take a closer look at why he is so interesting for us in particular and what controversial views he held. Above all, we would like to show what significance his findings and works of that time have for today.

Harvard professor & LSD: why Timothy Leary was so special

Who was Leary and what made him such a polarizing figure? Born Timothy Francis Leary on October 22, 1920 in Springfield Massachusetts, he achieved controversial fame in his exciting life and far beyond. In addition to his work as a psychologist, he wrote several books and even taught as a professor at Harvard University. Sounds like just another intelligent person of the time rather than a polarizing figure, doesn't it? He not only taught at Harvard, he also researched and experimented there and developed a number of psychological and psychotherapeutic findings and approaches.

However, these had nothing to do with normal behavioral problems or mental illness. Nor was he researching new therapeutic approaches for people with behavioral problems. His findings focused on topics such as sex on LSD or magic mushrooms. It's hard to imagine nowadays, but the Harvard professor and psychologist was known for his experiments with LS D and other mind-expanding substances. He researched the extent to which these can have an impact on various areas of life and how they can even have a positive influence. At that time, LSD was still legal and had the potential to positively expand human consciousness, at least according to Timothy Leary. He had plenty of psychedelic experiences, as his research was also influenced by his personal findings through the use of LSD.

His controversial experiments and views attracted a great deal of public interest and attention. This was not always positive, but it made him famous far beyond the academic world. He immortalized his concepts and works in several books because, as mentioned at the beginning, he was not only a psychologist and professor, but also a US writer. Timothy died of prostate cancer in Beverly Hills in 1996, but his unique works still provide us with incredible insights today.

Timothy Leary (1969)
Timothy Leary (1969)

Cosmic consciousness: A concept beyond borders

One of these works is Leary's concept of cosmic consciousness, which is at the center of his ideas and closely linked to his own findings through mind-expanding substances. Timothy was convinced that humans have an expanded form of consciousness that goes far beyond our everyday understanding of reality. This expanded consciousness is much deeper and more universally connected to everything that exists. Put more simply, the way we experience our world, everything in it and around us, on a daily basis is our normal consciousness. The expanded form, on the other hand, could let us experience everything differently, according to Timothy, more deeply and more extensively. According to Leary, psychedelic substances such as LSD are needed to reach the state of expanded consciousness. These would be the key to a state that could not be achieved in any other way.

His view was shaped by his personal psychedelic experience. This convinced him that the human mind was capable of achieving a much more comprehensive perception of reality than is the case in a normal state of consciousness. In these cases, the boundaries of the ego would also become blurred and form a universal connection with the environment. So there would be no I, you and this desk in this room, but a we, with each other, all together, at the same time. Does that sound confusing? Whatever you see it and call it, whether hallucinations, a trip or psychedelic - for Leary, it was primarily the meaning behind it all that was important. He was not interested in senseless drug use or fun, hallucinogenic experiences. For him, the focus was on understanding ourselves and our reality. He saw substances as a kind of special tool for a higher quality of consciousness and an increase in human potential.

Timothy Leary & Richard Alpert: The Harvard Psilocybin Project

Although Leary's experiments were largely polarizing and met with much criticism and rejection, he found a particularly important like-minded person. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass later became his spiritual name) was, like Timothy, a psychologist at Harvard University. Through their collaboration and, above all, their shared fascination with the potential of human consciousness, they became research colleagues and friends.

Their shared interest, mainly in LSD and the effects of psilocybin, became the cornerstone of groundbreaking scientific research. The psychedelic active ingredient psilocybin is found in so-called "magicmushrooms". For this reason, one sometimes comes across the term "psilocybin mushrooms", which expresses the scientific term of the active ingredient more correctly than the colloquial "magical" effect.

It was out of this interest that Timothy Leary and Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

The Harvard LSD Studies by Timothy Leary and Ram Dass

The aim of the so-called "HarvardLSD Studies" was to research the limits of the human mind. This included the existing capacity of the mind, which was necessary for its transformation into an expanded version. Leary and Alpert not only wanted to find out how such substances work, but also how they could be used positively. To this end, they researched ways of using psychedelics specifically for spiritual and therapeutic purposes.

Together they conducted many experiments. In these, both LSD and psilocybin were administered to volunteers in order to investigate their influence on psychological and spiritual experience. A well-known example of such studies is the "Marsh Chapel Experiment", also known as the "Good Friday Experiment". Religious participants were given psilocybin to induce spiritual experiences.

Alpert and Leary's research at Harvard University shed new light on the therapeutic and spiritual potential of mind-expanding substances and their exploration. However, as they mainly caused controversy, Timothy and Richard were dismissed from Harvard University in 1963. Among other things, they were criticized for their lack of scientific rigour and ethical concerns, as they both took part in the drug experiments themselves and also conducted them outside the university. They were particularly criticized for conducting research on students and prison inmates.

Marsh Chapel Window
Round window above the altar in Marsh Chapel at Boston University, the site of the Marsh Chapel Experiment of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The picture "Marsh Chapel Window" by John Stephen Dwyer is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Symbol of the 1960s counterculture

In the 1960s, it was not only Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert who had a lot to do with LSD through the LSD experiments in the USA. This period was particularly characterized by the "Francisco Psychedelics", the psychedelic movement in San Francisco. This counterculture consisted mainly of younger people who rebelled against the rigid social norms of the time. Their views on love, peace and spiritual awakening were mainly influenced by the use of psychedelic drugs. One could say that, like Leary, they found the experiences they had with these substances to be empowering and considered their use to be good and necessary to enhance the human experience and create a more peaceful, impactful world.

It is not surprising that Leary, who held the same view and even did research to substantiate it scientifically, became a symbol of this counterculture . His publications threw the national spotlight on the psychedelic movement in San Francisco. One of Timothy Leary's slogans (Drop out, Tune in) became particularly important. The slogan reads in full: " Turn on, tune in, drop out" and it perfectly summarizes both Timothy's and the counterculture's philosophy:

  • "Turn on" stands for expanding consciousness through psychedelic drugs.

  • "Tune in" stands for immersion in a new world of experience and a deeper level of understanding of one's surroundings.

  • "Drop out" calls for breaking away from the conventional social expectations and ways of life in society.

This slogan became a kind of battle cry of the counterculture and, together with Leary, its symbol. His resistance to social norms, his controversial research and his advocacy of psychedelic drugs made him a polarizing figure who perfectly embodied and immortalized the spirit of the 1960s counterculture.

Spouses and children of the LSD professor

Leary's private life was just as turbulent as his career. It was characterized by unusual, changing relationships and was just as unconventional as Timothy Leary himself. The professor's first spouse was Marianne Busch. This marriage produced two biological children, Susan and Jack Leary.

Some time later, he married Mary Della Cioppa, but this marriage was not destined to last forever either. Cioppa was followed by a very short marriage to Nena von Schlebrügge (she is the mother of Uma Thurman) and then Timothy married for the last time in his life: Barbara Chase. She brought Zach Leary into the marriage, who was the son of the artist Michael Bowen. However, this made no difference to Timothy Leary. He already had children from his first marriage, but he adopted Zach and influenced him with his unconventional world view.

As if they had learned from Timothy's turbulent life before, Barbara Chase and he had a dynamic relationship. She became an important companion in the later stages of his life and was married to him until the time of his death - which he also spent with another companion named Joanna Harcourt-Smith. It becomes clear that Leary's family history was just as complex and extraordinary as his life. Strong personalities, complex relationships and all deviating from the norm.

Timothy Leary: Books and experiences for the ages

Leary immortalized his research and findings in various books, videos and models. His legacy includes unique works from experiments that will probably never be carried out again. A few of the most famous are as follows:

  • Ralph Metzner, Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary "The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead" (Psychedelic Experiences: A Manual Based on Instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead): Together with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, Leary draws parallels in this book between experiences from psychedelic states with the stages of dying as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

  • Timothy Leary "Your Brain Is God": This book is a collection of essays and lectures in which he presents his thoughts on consciousness, religion and psychedelics. It reflects his philosophy that human consciousness has divine aspects and can be expanded through the use of these substances.

  • Timothy Leary "Start Your Own Religion": In this book, Leary encourages readers to question traditional religious dogma and find their own spiritual direction. It reflects his belief that individual spiritual experiences are more important than organized religion.

  • Timothy Leary "How to Operate Your Brain": This is not a book, but a video of Timothy offering guidance on consciousness expansion and self-reflection.

Rose of Leary and the circumplex model

In addition to books and the video, Leary created models to better understand human behavior and consciousness:

  • Rose ofLeary (Interpersonal Circumplex Theory or Interpersonal Circumplex): This model analyzes interpersonal interactions and behaviors on two axes: dominance vs. submission and friendliness vs. hostility. This enables patterns in social interactions to be understood and categorized.

  • Timothy Leary: Circuits of Consciousness: This model includes eight circuits or levels of consciousness (neurological and psychological), ranging from basic survival functions to spiritual enlightenment. According to Leary, it is possible to reach higher circuits through psychedelic experiences.

Timothy Leary: Quotes that provoke

Finally, we would like to present a small selection of Timothy Leary's most famous qu otes (in addition to "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out"). He was and is very well known for these, as they are pithy and provocative. For a better understanding, we have roughly translated Timothy Leary's quotes into German:

  • "Think for yourself and question authority.": "Think for yourself and question authority." This quote emphasizes the importance of individual freedom and critical thinking in the face of authority.

  • "Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.":"Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition." A provocative quote that challenges conventional notions of gender roles and equality.

  • "In the information age, you don't teach philosophy as they did after feudalism. You perform it. If Aristotle were alive today he'd have a talk show.":"In the information age, you don't teach philosophy as they did after feudalism. It is performed. If Aristotle were alive today he'd have a talk show." Here Leary reflects on how the imparting of knowledge has changed in modern times.

  • "LSD is a psychedelic drug which occasionally causes psychotic behavior in people who have NOT taken it.":"LSD is a psychedelic drug which occasionally causes psychotic behavior in people who have NOT taken it." An ironic quote that points to the public misperception and hysteria about LSD and its dangers.