By Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein
This photograph–possibly the only one in existence of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley (there are some with Laura from later years)–documents a historic moment: the only time the two appeared on stage and gave talks at the same public event.
It also marked a milestone in Leary’s career: it was the first time he addressed an international conference, where he spoke about the psychedelic research project at Harvard–an event that had both personal and professional implications for him and his associate, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass).
The event was the 14th Annual Congress of Applied Psychology, held in Copenhagen in August, 1961. Leary chaired the symposium on psychiatric drugs. It was he who invited Aldous to attend. The two had met some months earlier, when Tim invited the author of the first two major works of modern psychedelic literature (The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell) to participate in the Harvard research program. Huxley agreed and was “Subject no.11” in a group psilocybin session run by Leary in November 1960.
In Copenhagen, Huxley spoke on the subject of “Visionary Experience,” a topic he often revisited. After discussing various non-drug methods of achieving visionary experiences, he came around to this:
“In modern times pharmacology has produced, partly by more refined methods of extracts and partly by methods of synthesis, a number of mind-changing drugs of extraordinary power, but remarkable for the fact that they have very little harmful effect on the body….With such drugs as psilocybin, it is possible for the majority of people to go into this other world with very little trouble and with almost no harm to themselves.”
He concluded his talk by noting that “we shall hear from Dr. Leary of the induction of such experiences by such substances as psilocybin,” anticipating Leary’s subject by noting that psychedelic drugs “may be very, very important in changing our lives, changing our mode of consciousness, perceiving that there are other ways of looking at the world than the ordinary, utilitarian manner, and it may also result in significant changes in behavior.”
It is noteworthy that Frank Barron, Leary’s lifelong friend and colleague, also spoke. His talk made reference to his “commending the mushroom to the attention of Dr. Leary, who immediately seized upon its possibilities as a vehicle for inducing change in behavior as a result of the altered state of consciousness which the drug produced.”
Leary spoke later in the day on the topic, “How To Change Behavior,” during which he summarized the work he and his team had done since initiating the Psilocybin Research Project in the fall of 1960, offering some controversial opinions:
“For many people, one or two psilocybin experiences can accomplish the goals of a long and successful psychotherapy…. The non-game visionary experiences are, I submit, the key to behavior change. Drug-induced satori. In three hours under the right circumstances the cortex can be cleared. The games that frustrate and torment can be seen in the cosmic dimension.”
The way Robert Greenfield tells it in Timothy Leary: A Biography, Leary’s talk deeply disturbed many of the professional psychologists in the audience (which included several of his nervous academic superiors at Harvard), who believed mind-expanding drugs caused temporary psychosis and should only be used under strict medical supervision. Richard Alpert (almost a decade before he became known as Ram Dass) followed Tim at the podium, freaking out the assembly even further with the notion that psilocybin and LSD produced genuine mystical experiences, which was an end in itself.
Their deviation from the medical model was more than anyone in the audience could handle —with the exception of Aldous Huxley, who had made similar assertions in his talk, though with a less impassioned tone.
Tim was later told by some psychologists who were present that his talk “had set Danish psychology back twenty years.” Their Harvard colleague, George Littwin, claimed that this event proved to be the beginning of the end, not only for the research program but of Leary and Alpert’s time at Harvard, which came to a close in June 1963.
Nonetheless, “How To Change Behavior” proved to be one of Leary’s most popular writings, being reprinted in a number of books and journals.
The Copenhagen congress thus represented the first public pronouncement by Leary and Alpert who, taking their cues from Huxley and the results of their own scientific research, were early on convinced that the advent of synthetic psychedelics was a major evolutionary stage for humanity, destined to bring about a cultural revolution which they had no hesitation in facilitating if not spearheading.