Back in the 1950s preclinical drugs were barely regulated in the US. LSD and other psychedelics were freely experimented with by scientists, and respected journals duly and dryly reported study outcomes. Researchers examined its psychological and biological efficacy, treated patients, and sought the opinion of writers, artists and philosophers. Some even began privately sharing its extraordinary properties with friends and family.
Out of this extraordinary milieu a psychedelic culture arose, as LSD increasingly left the lab, leaking onto college campuses and into the minds of a growing counterculture. As a loose collective, psychedelia was, and indeed continues to be, a curious blend of scientists, writers, therapists, artists, and hedonists. A perfect cultural storm during a time of social unrest. It signalled its beliefs through its first periodical: the Psychedelic Review (1963-1971).
The journal was founded by Drs Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert; quintessential figures of the period undertaking official psychedelic research at Harvard University before joining the countercultural vanguard. Although discussing ongoing studies, Psychedelic Review (PR) was also a medium for placing psychedelics in the context of wider philosophical and social questions. It reflected the literary and artistic interests of those who had experimented with LSD during the previous decade, and had a radical liberal project built in.
Inspired in part by author Aldous Huxley, at the journal’s centre was a belief in LSD’s potential for a liberation of the self. Noting its ability to permeate egos and resolve emotional crises, British expatriate writer and friend of Huxley, Gerald Heard, asked in its first issue, ‘Can Drugs Enlarge Man’s Mind?’:
“…the practical answer to ‘What Can LSD Provide?’ seems to be that LSD remains for the time being what it is: a ‘research drug’, to be used with greatest care to explore the minds of those who would volunteer to aid competent researchers by offering themselves as voyagers to the ‘Gate of Ivory’.”
There is undoubtedly an underlying elitism in this liberation, but the seeds for wider radical social appraisal were also there. In the same issue, writer and religious philosopher Alan Watts claimed, “Theoretically, many scientists know that the individual is not a skin-encapsulated ego but an organism-environment field.” If the mind of the individual is to be liberated, it must also necessitate a break with their social and political environment too.