University of California Press, 2012, 336 pages.
Humphry Osmond wrote to Aldous Huxley in 1956 proposing the term “psychedelic,” coined from two Greek words to mean “mind manifesting.” The scholars, one a psychiatrist and the other a celebrated novelist and philosopher, were exuberant about the potential of drugs for accessing the mind. Huxley favored a phrase from William Blake:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
He postulated that psychedelics disturbed the “cerebral reducing valve” (1954), and that this was in fact the shared mechanism for regular drug trips, as well as schizophrenic and mystical experiences. If it were the case, the drugs could offer a chemical shortcut to the divine, and a reasonable way to scientifically study mental illness.
With such ideas in vogue, the 1950s were heady years, at least for research on psychedelic drugs. More than 750 articles were published on LSD alone. Some studies made use of the drug experience to model schizophrenia, others to develop treatments for alcoholism. And as Nicolas Langlitz explains in Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research Since the Decade of the Brain, the brain as filter – the idea of gates or doors (which, yes, also gave name to the band) – would go on to serve as a significant shared conceptual matrix for psychopharmacologic research, from experimental psychosis to experimental mysticism (10).
Yet, despite great interest in the potential of psychedelics for treating mental disorders, and even hopes for their application to social ills, research in the United States on these drugs broke down in the 1960s as they became associated with the hippie counterculture.
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