Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Timothy Leary Lives?

According to the Independent (independent.co.uk, 12 April), the first scientist in 40 years to test LSD on humans claims to have unlocked the secrets of hallucinogenic drugs. The controversial study claims it makes the brain more "complete".

The drug makes the various parts of your brain work at once and together: cross sections show nearly all of it lit up, rather than very local parts and working in a more integrated and unified way.  Much like an infant's brain (hmm, that figures!) The lead researcher, Robert Carhart-Harris said "In many ways the brain in the LSD state resembles the state we were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained."

The research showed the effects could be even further encouraged by use of music (tick to that also). I wonder what they used? In my day early Pink Floyd would have been popular and Country Joe and the Fish's Electric Music for the Mind and Body spot on.

Professor David Nutt (I'm not making this up, he's director of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College and one of the project's senior researchers) said that scientists had waited 50 years to understand how LSD alters our brain biology. Professor Nutt was removed from his job as Chair of the government's drug advisory council in 2009 after he, one would have thought uncontroversially but certainly off message, pointed out that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

The study's authors claim the "benefits" could be long lasting : "Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way - and seems to be associated with improvements in well being after the drug's effects have subsided."

I'm not sure about long term benefits myself. My admittedly entirely 2nd hand observation as a student, back in very much the day, was that acid turned pleasant, intelligent people into introverted low achievers. "Tune in, turn on, drop out" said Timothy Leary, famously. Well the last part tended to follow naturally after the second, from what I saw. They certainly seemed to "see" with other parts of their brain than the visual cortex, as the research found. I would say infantile rather than infant-like, but there you go.

"Timothy Leary's dead" sang the Moody Blues (I realise he wasn't when they sang it, they meant discredited) but clearly his spirit lives on. I'm not really drawing a parallel between the folks at Imperial and the notorious Leary, who Richard Nixon branded "the most dangerous man in America" (pot calling kettle, or what?). However, Leary was advocating a drug that was legal at the time and his key argument - that LSD could alter behavior in beneficial ways not easily attainable through regular therapy - seems pretty similar to Carhart-Harris's statement above to me.

One person who has been claimed to have benefited from LSD was John Lennon, who acknowledged that LSD changed him in some ways for the better. Those who knew him in 1966 say his personality suddenly softened, his aggression giving way to a noticeably mellower mood. But it also fired creativity: Stawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life, I Am The Walrus and, particularly, Tomorrow Never Knows, according to Ian MacDonald (reference below).

I recall a discussion in a 1960s grammar school English class where many of my peers were adamant that Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was inspired by LSD. "It's in the initials, innit?" was the extent of the argument. Lennon and colleagues consistently said it wasn't about LSD. What none of us teenage innocents realised was that Tomorrow Never Knows, off the previous album, Revolver, WAS explicitly about the LSD experience (so there was no need for them to make up stories about Lucy In The Sky) and helped introduce LSD and Leary's psychedelic revolution to the young of the western world.

MacDonald, referencing a source, says Lennon took LSD for the 3rd time in January 1966. Intending a serious journey of self discovery, but lacking any guidance on the drug as it was novel in Britain, he turned to The Psychedelic Experience - the manual for mind expansion by then Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. In turn they, seeing LSD as a sacramental chemical capable of inducing spiritual revelations, had used The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, an ancient Buddhist tome, in their work. Lennon used the instructions from The Psychedelic Experience,  reading its paraphrasing of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead onto a tape recorder and replaying it as the drug took effect. He must have had a good trip, because he hastened to capture it in song, taking many of the lines in the lyric directly from the Leary/Alpert text. They include the first line: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream" and the concept of the Void: "Lay down all thought, surrender to the Void".

Indeed, the working title for the song was "The Void", but it was switched to a saying of Ringo's, analogous to an old hippie maxim "Be Here Now", probably from the title of Alpert's third book on these matters and paraphrasing Vedic teaching that to dwell on past or future is to be dead in the present. And which I just realised a year or two ago is the title of the third Oasis album. The influence is all around us and, most of the time, I'm oblivious. Which is fitting I suppose as oblivion and the void are apparently the aim.

While LSD is credited with Lennon's surge in creativity at that point in time, he reportedly became psychologically addicted to it and two years later was a mental wreck. Certainly, until he got clean, he was less creative for a while and the Beatles became very reliant on McCartney in that period.

I'll dig out Revolver  in a bit but now, where's my Country Joe album? The track I'm going to listen to is Bass Strings, their explicit paean to LSD. "The truth lives all around me, but it's just beyond my grasp". And I expect there it will stay, while you're tripping, chum. I think I'll stay off it while I'm still capable of doing anything much at all. But, if I end up in an Old Folks' Home, then will someone please smuggle me some in?

The official report of the research is published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology (yup, new one on me, too).

Ian MacDonald's splendid book is called Revolution In The Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, Fourth Estate. My copy 1994, newer editions available.

Hear Country Joe's Bass Strings at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3JlCR8tIZA (on youtube many times but that one has nice pictures)

Sorry this is rather long, but it's very short compared with the Independent article and MacDonald's treatise on Tomorrow Never Knows!

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