When Timothy Leary gave BU divinity students psilocybin

Sure, Leary is better known for his drug work at Harvard, but the Quad takes us back to Good Friday, 1962, when he traveled across the river and 20 divinity students sat in the basement of Marsh Chapel and consumed the pills he gave them - half containing psilocybin and half a placebo. Leary chose divinitiy students specifically because he wanted to see if the magic mushrooms could induce religious experiences.



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Several problems with that article

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When this experiment is discussed in the popular press, it's always interesting to see what each reporter (and generation) makes of it. Ms. Ruggiero's article is engaging enough, but unfortunately it repeats several of the misconceptions that are typical of accounts of the "Good Friday Experiment".

First, as fond as I was of Dr. Leary (Ifni rest his soul), it's Dr. Pahnke who deserves the lion's share of fame for this study (which was his PhD thesis work). Leary is definitely a cultural icon of the 20th century, so I understand the impulse to prominently mention him, but the academic in me likes to see the real primary get fair credit for what was a courageous and fascinating experiement.

Also, Ms. Ruggiero makes short shift of the significant contemporary critiques of the GFE's experimental protocol. Admittedly, some of these critics were likely motivated by cultural prejudices re: psychedlics, but there were plenty of legitimate issues with the both the size of the study and its methodology. In fact, efforts to avoid many of these problems have strongly influenced modern psychological research protocols. Ironically, this may end up being the most significant contribution of this study to science.

But finally and most to the point - the study did not actually show that a single dose of psilocybin had a demonstrable effect on the professional development of the subjects who recieved it! In a long-term followup started in 1986, it was determined that 5 out of 10 of the control group went on to become ministers, while 5 out of 8 of the experimental group did so. (One member of that group had passed and another declined to be interviewed). These numbers are hardly suprising, given that the subjects were all Divinity School students at the time of the experiment.


Let me say that I don't actually have a problem with the thesis that "real" transcendent experiences can be catalyzed by psychopharmological means (in fact, research done in the intervening years has done a lot to support this idea). But I can't stand sloppy science journalism.

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RadioLab recently did a

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RadioLab recently did a segment on this very experiment.

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Yes, and they got it very wrong.

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Unfortunately, that's not unusual. I used to enjoy Radiolab, until I came to realize that they would rather tell an entertaining story than an accurate one.

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