Timothy Leary and his Psychological H-Bomb

Timothy Leary and his Psychological H-Bomb

By Robert Anton Wilson

from The Realist, No. 52, August 1964

The future may decide that the two greatest thinkers of the 20th Century were Albert Einstein who showed how to create atomic fission in the physical world and Timothy Leary who showed how to create atomic fission in the psychological world.  The latter discovery may be more important than the former; there are some reasons for thinking that it was made necessary by the former.

Nuclear fission of the material universe has created an impasse which is not merely political but ideological, epistemological, metaphysical.  As Einstein himself said, atomic energy has changed everything but our habits of thought and until our habits of thought also change we are going to drift continually closer to annihilation.  Timothy Leary may have shown how our habits of thought can be changed.

After the outburst of unfavorable publicity about Dr. Leary in the mass magazines in November and December 1963, most readers presumably know who Timothy Leary is and what he has been doing.

He is the man who, together with Dr. Richard Alpert, conducted several experiments at Harvard on “psychedelic” (mind-altering) chemicals; as a result of these experiments, Dr. Leary pronounced some very shocking and “radical” ideas at various scientific meetings, and attempted to implement these ideas by setting up an organization through which these mind-changing chemicals could be legally made available to whomever wanted them.

When the authorities found out what Dr. Leary was attempting, the laws were quickly changed to make the distribution of these chemicals a government monopoly, and Dr. Leary and Dr. Alpert were removed from their positions at Harvard.

Leary and Alpert now live, with an “extended family” of 22 others, in an old estate in Millbrook, New York, and I drove up there on a recent week-end to get their side of the story and find out what their present plans are.

Let me admit that several of my best friends have been kicked out of various university positions, like Leary and Alpert, for thinking independent thoughts, the one crime never permitted in an American university.  I found Leary and Alpert the least embittered of any of these expelled heretics that I have ever met.

”Harvard was right,” Leary says calmly.  “We were planning to leave anyway, before they asked us to.  We believe in every man’s right to play his own game, but he must contract with others as to where and when the game should be played, what the rules are, and so forth.  Nobody has the right to inflict his game on others.  We don’t believe, for instance, that a baseball team has the right to charge out onto a football field where a game is in progress and start their own game and get in everybody else’s way.  Harvard had a verbal game, and we’ve got a non-verbal game.  Obviously, we have to find our own field.”

The “extended family” mentioned above is part of Leary’s game.  Criticisms of the restricted, authoritarian mold of the patriarchal family have been around for about a hundred years now, such criticisms coming equally vehemently from Marxists, Reichians, anarchists and Borsodians.  Leary, instead of merely criticizing the patriarchal-authoritarian family game, has started his own libertarian and decentralized family game.

The extended family at Millbrook consists of Dr. Leary and his town children, Dr. Alpert, Dr. Ralph Metzer and his wife and children, a jazz musician and his wife and five children, a Negro family, and one or two others.  Various visitors are continually coming and going – among them Catholic priests, psychologists, anthropologists, beatniks, ex-convicts who became friends of Leary’s during his work in the prisoner rehabilitation field, Buddhist monks, etc. – and a sign immediately inside the front door of the main house tells you:

Like other games, the visiting game is best played when the parties involved have an explicit contract as to the roles each shall play and the over-all rules.

If you are an invited guest, please contact the member of the family who invited you.

If you are uninvited, please restrict your visit to one hour and remain here until one of us can be with you to show you about.

The Millbrook community is on an estate of 5,000 acres and includes twenty small cottages as well as the two castle-like main houses.  The “family” remains in the bigger of the two main houses, except when somebody wants to withdraw for a while for meditation, writing, or just to escape other people’s games.
”We have our own transcendental games, which are just as much of a hang-up as the conventional social games,” Dr. Alpert told me, with a wide grin.  “When it gets too gamey for somebody, out to the cottage he goes.”

Leary was already playing an interview game when I arrived – Dr. Roger Wescott, the anthropologist-poet-libertarian-epigramatist-linguist-semanticist, was making a tape with Dr. Leary, so my wife and I wandered around examining the house.  It was the Frankenstein’s Castle sort of place that rich families used to build back in the 19th Century, but finished in very modern style.

There were few paintings, but lots of collages – one that I particularly remember was a psychedelic collage made up of photos of William Burroughs, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and other distinguished experimenters with chemical consciousness-expansion, together with sensational headlines about these chemicals, and the formulas for these chemicals;  another was a really wild and way-out thing featuring a score of nude gals from Playboy interspersed with Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other meditative oriental figures.

Dr. Alpert joined us and we began chatting about the reactions of various groups to psychedelic research.  Alpert admitted that he had never read any Oriental philosophy until after his first experiences with LSD and psilocybin (the two principal mind-enlarging chemicals.)

”I was a logical positivist,” he said, “and all Oriental thought seemed primitive and irrational to me.  But after my first trans-ego experience with psilocybin I realized that a lot of their religious thought was really a very apt description of this type of consciousness-expansion.”

Dr. Leary, meanwhile, had escaped from Dr. Wescott’s interview-game and was plunged into a game that seemed to be even more enjoyable to him: baseball.  Watching him belt the ball with great zest and considerable skill for his 43 years, I recalled his famous comparison of baseball and psychotherapy in his explosive essay, “How to Change Behavior”:

In terms of the epistemology and scientific method employed, the ‘game’ of baseball is superior to any of the so-called behavioral sciences.  Baseball officials have classified and they reliably record molecular behavior sequences (the strike, the hit, the double-play, etc.) Their compiled records are converted into indices most relevant for summarizing and predicting behavior (R.B.I, runs batted in; E.R.A, earned run average, etc.)  Baseball employs well-trained raters to judge those rare events which are not obviously and easily coded.  These raters are known as umpires.

When we move from behavior –science to behavior-change, we see that baseball experts have devised another remarkable set of techniques for bringing about the results which they and their subjects look for: coaching.  Baseball men understand the necessity for sharing time and space with their learners, for setting up role models, for feedback of relevant information to the learner, for endless practice of the desired behavior.

…Baseball is a clean and successful game because it is seen as a game…The nationality game it is treason not to play,  (and it is treason not to play), the racial game, the religious game, and that most treacherous and tragic game of all, the game of individuality, the ego game.

When I was able to lure Dr. Leary back into another interview-game, we retired to the kitchen with a Catholic monk, who was also trying to interview Dr. Leary, and my wife made some coffee.  I asked Dr. Leary how he happened to adopt the game model for his scientific papers on human behavior – did he acquire it from sociologist Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, from mathematician von Neumann’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, or was it just in the air in behavioral sciences these days?

“Well, it’s been in the air for quite a while,” he said, “and I may have used it once or twice in the old days, but it really came home to me after my first psychedelic experience.” This occurred on vacation in Mexico, where an anthropologist game him one of the “magic mushrooms” which the Indians say “allows a man to see God.”
Leary knew that the mushroom contained the alkaloid, psilocybin, described by psychiatrists as a “psychototomimetic” (insanity-producer) or “hallucinogenic” (hallucination-producer).  Curious, he ate it and waited to see what would happen.  For four hours, his mind “whiled around in some strange universe outside of my ego.”  Nothing in all his psychological training could explain or even verbalize the nature of this experience.

He had been teaching academic psychology for over ten years and practicing as a therapist with disturbed individuals for eight years, but he suddenly realized that there were aspects of the human consciousness which Western science had never described, explained or even investigated.

”I kept searching for words to describe what had happened,” he told me, “and finally I remembered the game model and I said: ‘The space game came to an end, then the time game came to an end, and then the Timothy Leary game came to an end.’”

While the game metaphor is very evocative of the after-effect of the experience, in which one sees very clearly the arbitrary nature of the social roles people play, I personally prefer, in describing the experience itself, my own atomic fission metaphor.  The ego, the psychological individuality of man, is literally blown to atoms.  The decentralized consciousness which remains is described as “union with God” by Western mystics, as “the blessed void” by Eastern mystics, and as “schizophrenic lunacy” by dogmatic old-school materialists.  Because this experience has usually been associated with religion and sometimes with very superstitious religion, a large portion of the scientific community prefers the third description and regards Dr. Leary’s work with considerable hostility.

The typical psychedelic experience – and here I shall attempt to describe it in neutral terminology – seems to consist of four stages.

First there is a gradual disorientation, accompanied sometimes by nausea and sometimes by anxiety.  Psychedelic chemicals seem to act, primarily, on the colloidal structure of the living protoplasm; the action of both nerves and muscles depends upon whether the colloids are expanding toward sol-state or contracting toward gel-state.

The psychedelics seem to lead to an expansion, which means that the muscles lose a great deal of their chronic tension (everybody in our society is defending himself muscularly as well as psychologically) and the nerves transmit more information.

In the second stage, the new relaxation and new information begin to be accepted by the body, and no longer cause nausea and anxiety.  At this point, new perceptions break through – some of them probably hallucinatory, some of them probably not.  You typically see colors brighter, hear music clearer, see motions in a new esthetic way; you may also see something as odd as the alcoholic’s pink elephant.

In the third stage, hallucinations give way to the unstructured perceptions of infancy or idiocy: space and time break down into arbitrary patterns inside yourself which you no longer have the energy to project onto the world (through all this, which burns up considerable energy, you are getting tireder and tireder.)  At the end of this stage, with a strong psychedelic, the ego pattern itself is an abstraction which you no longer have the energy to hold onto as “reality.”

Through both the hallucinatory and transcendental phases of the experience, the body is in a peculiar ecstasy which may, possibly, be our natural state before social conventions fouled us up, or may be an artificial creation of the chemicals.

Finally, in the fourth phase, the ego gradually re-establishes itself, space and time reappear, the ordinary socially-defined “reality” restructures itself.  But you are never again able to believe that this social “reality” is all of reality or that your ego is all of you.

Actually there is nothing very “mystical” (in the pejorative sense of that word) about Dr. Timothy Leary.  Many subjects have reported, after psychedelic experiences, that they achieved “telepathy”, or that their “astral body” left their “physical body” or similar spiritualistic claims.  Dr. Leary is rigidly empirical about such matters.  He ahs devised an experiment which might shed some light on the “telepathy” claim, and he is trying to devise an experiment that would test the “astral body” claim, but he will not offer an opinion until the experiments are repeatedly performed.

Questioning him at great length on these matters, I discovered in him a genuine and vehement distaste for opinion in scientific matters.  He will keep his mouth shut until he has an experience to report.  Indeed,any question I asked him on a matter which had not yet been experimentally explored by himself or some other scientist led him inevitably, not into an opinion, but into a suggestion as to what sort of experiment might shed some light on the subject.  Buckminster Fuller, in my experience with him, has that type of mind; most other scientists, in spite of aiming for it, do not really have it.

The game-model, like the models of modern physics, is similar in structure to the events it seeks to explain; that is, it is offered as a model, not as “the thing-in-itself.”  Modern science more and more recognizes that there is no thing-in-itself.  “The map is not the territory,” as Korzybski used to say.  The value of the game model in describing, analyzing, predicting, and changing human behavior is that it lends itself – much more than Freud’s “ego,” “id,” “censor,” etc. or academic psychology’s “stimulus” and “response” – to a joint personal-and-interpersonal framework.

A man plays his own personal games, but he plays them according to socially-learned rules.

”Even the catatonic,” Leary likes to point out, “is playing a socially-learned game:  the withdrawn ‘crazy’ person, with all sorts of socially-learned ritual ‘crazy’ gestures; and his game achieves its object, which is to get other people to treat him as a withdrawn ‘crazy’ person and ignore him most of the time.  In a mental hospital, the catatonics are very successful in getting the staff to play this game according to these rules.”  Leary also points out how the paranoiac easily draws others into his game of “you reject me all the time.

Leary applies the game model to all human behavior except for random gestures, physiological reflexes and instinctual movements.    All other human movements, he points out, follow “highly systematized sequences,” and each of these highly systematized sequences embodies a socially-learned game, which is artificial, tribal, and arbitrary.

Roman Catholicism is a game in which you make certain ritual gestures, splash yourself with water on certain occasions, refuse certain foods on certain occasions, etc.

Prison is a behavior-change game with four teams – cons, guards, administration, and psychotherapists – and Leary regards it as one of our most tragic games because all four teams have different goals.

Freudian psychotherapy is another behavior-change game, involving only two players, with rigidly prescribed rules; in this case, although the goals of the two players are different, they do not sharply collide as in the prison game.

The ego-game, which is usually a one-upsmanship game, is the game least likely to be seen as a game by the players of it, unless – through chemicals, through the abnormal breathing exercises of Buddhism, through stroboscopic lights, or through some traumatic experience – they achieve the non-game perspective of a trans-ego awareness.

Dr. Leary’s baseball analogy, quoted earlier, has sharpened his eye for precision in goal-planning.  When he started his prisoner-rehabilitation project at Massachusetts State prison, he discarded all of the vaguely-worded traditional goals of “psychotherapy,” “socialization,” “increased maturity,” etc., and set a very simple measurable goal.  He was dealing with 37 convicts who were due for parole within a year. His goal was defined as “keeping the cons on the street.”  The measurement was simple: one year after release, “Where are the bodies of the cons in space-time?”  If most of them are back in prison, as most cons usually are one year after release, Leary’s behavior-change game would have failed its goal.

One year after release, 75% of Leary’s cons were out on the streets, 25% were back in prison.  The usual rate on discharged cons is exactly the reverse, 75% back in stir, 25% still outside.  His behavior-change game had shown considerable promise.

At this point, however, Leary was discharged from Harvard, others were put in charge of the prison project, and more traditional psychotherapy games were instituted.  A year later, most of the cons were back in the joint again.  “Society didn’t really like the results of our game,” Leary told me philosophically. “Most people are still hung up on the blame-game, the punishment-game, the monotheism-game and the cops-and-robbers game.  They didn’t like seeing the cons start learning new games.”

One of the many things that made Leary appear as a shady character around Cambridge was that his first experiment in an “extended family” there included several of the ex-cons, as well as – horrors—a beatnik with long womanish hair.  The neighbors complained.  Leary once wrote in a scientific paper, “The convicts are no longer subjects to me.  They are my brothers.”  This kind of thing just doesn’t go over in the world of academic psychology.

Actually, Leary had started to abandon the dichotomy of therapist-and-patient, researcher-and-subject even before he got interested in psychedelics.  It occurred to him that this game forced psychology into an authoritarian mold which, although useful in explicating the typical behavior of individuals in our authoritarian society, did not indicate all the potentials of humanity.

He began such unorthodox approaches as calling the “subject” a “research associate” and seeing to it that he was treated that way; having a group of subjects – pardon, research associates – give a test to a group of psychology graduate students before the students gave the test to them; asking the research associates to tear up a questionnaire and write down what they thought was important about what had happened;  and tearing down the separation between authoritarian scientist and obedient subject in every other conceivable way.

By the time he got to the prisoner rehabilitation program, he had arrived at such an anarchistic standpoint – anarchistic in the etymological sense of non-authoritarian, not in the pejorative sense of chaotic – that most of the time the convicts were giving instruction and even orders to many of the graduate psychology students in the project.

Leary’s behavior-change game involves three stages: (a) a preparation in which the persons who are trying to learn new games are taught everything presently known about psychedelic chemicals and their effects, including the opinions of those who do not see any beneficial value in these chemicals;  (b) several sessions in which various persons partake of the chemicals and explode their egos – this always begins with the psychologists, so that the rehabilitation group is not asked to take any “risks “ that the coaches haven’t taken first; (c) Re-training.

In this last stage, Leary eschews most Freudian and traditional therapy and takes a common-sense approach very similar to Dr. Albert Ellis’ “rational therapy.”

The coaches use traditional baseball methods on the trainees: setting up role models for the new games, rehearsing the trainees in the new games, feeding back corrections of errors, practice of the desired behavior.

”We’ve now got to the point,” Dr. Leary told me, “of analyzing every game into its nine components.  These components are Roles, Rules, Rituals, Goals, Language, Values, Strategies, Recurrent Sequences of Movements, and Characteristic Space-Time Locations.  The last two are the easiest to observe, record, and analyze.  If you want to know what games a man is playing, share space-time with him, see the flow, flow, flow of his movements during several 24-hour periods.  Then you can begin analyzing what Roles he is playing, what Strategies he uses to reach his Goals, etc.  An unhappy man is either playing a game he doesn’t fully understand or is playing games that are intrinsically unprofitable.”

What games is Dr. Leary himself playing these days?

”This is a sabbatical year,” he told me.  “Dick (Dr. Alpert) and I are writing a couple of books, taking stock, thinking things over.  We – the whole family here – are engaged in ego-transcendence games. We’re trying to find out, in a small experimental community, how much of the non-game perspective of the psychedelic experiences can be carried over into daily life.”

”We’ve already found one of the great dangers,” Dr. Alpert put in.  “There’s a spiritual one-upsmanship game, too.  ‘My ego-loss experience was more oceanic, or more cosmic, than yours.’ All the great Eastern mystical traditions are aware of this, and have gimmicks for counteracting it.  We’re studying all of their games for carrying ego-transcendence into ordinary life.”

I asked Leary about the supposed dangers of the psychedelic chemicals – the great bugaboo being that occasional paranoiac or schizophrenic behavior results from these chemicals, and that some have claimed that such psychotic damage can be permanent.

Leary emphasized again that, in his research, over 90% of all volunteers have had “good” experiences, and that “bad” experiences are caused by the authoritarian doctor-patient game which some researchers have force on their subjects.  Given in a libertarian, humanistic context, the chemicals almost always produce the ego-transcending experience, and, when something unpleasant does occur, it is always temporary.

”Psychologists are always dragging people into small rooms,” he said, “giving them test papers to fill out, and generally enforcing their own game on them.  With psychedelics, this just doesn’t work.  All that the poor guy becomes aware of, as his consciousness expands, is that he’s on the weak end of an authoritarian relationship.  Magnified, as these chemicals magnify things, that feeling becomes paranoia.  It’s the same with that other dread that people have, the fear that these chemicals can be used for seduction by unscrupulous persons.  It just doesn’t work.  You give LSD to a girl and try to seduce her and she’ll see you as a conspirator, which is just what you are.  She might even see you as a Wolf or a Devil and start screaming.”

All the time Dr. Leary was speaking to me there was a strange sort of contact between us.  I have felt this previously with a few people who have successfully gone through Reich’s peculiar physical-psychiatric therapy, and with three Japanese Zen teachers I used to know, and with very few others.

Dr. Leary is not afraid to touch you, psychologically, and he is not afraid of being touched.  There are no walls around his person.  My wife also commented on this after we left.  Leary also has the kind of weary, patient eyes that some Chinese and Japanese Buddhas have.  At one point, he admitted to me that, before he really understood how to use psychedelics, he had 20 paranoiac experiences (and 150 “good” ones): the paranoias may well have taught him as much as the ecstasies.  I think he could say even more sincerely than Freud, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

Lately Leary has been experimenting with literary methods of conveying the feel of a psychedelic experience on the printed page.  He finds great promise in the permutation-and-combination method of William S. Burroughs, who, in The Soft Machine and The Exterminator, takes a page of his own prose, a newspaper story, a page of Shakespeare, a poem by Rimbaud, etc. cuts them into pieces, shuffles, and copies down the result.  The same pieces are reshuffled, and a second, and third, and maybe a fourth combination is tried.  Then a few more pieces are thrown in, and the shuffling starts again.  (The results of this are far less chaotic than one would imagine.  Burroughs has created a prose of truly poetic, and hypnotic, fascination.)

In telling of his own experiments with this method of composition, Leary subtly began imitating Burroughs, and his face took on the embittered squint of the photos of Burroughs I have seen: a remarkable unconscious empathy.  I remarked that, “Sick as he is, Burroughs is our greatest writer since Joyce.”  Leary said quietly, “Oh, I don’t think he’s sick.”

The Catholic monk, who had gathered from our previous conversation that Burroughs is a homosexual ex-confidence man and morphine addict who killed his common-law wife while trying to shoot an apple off her head, smiled gamely and asked me for the names of Burroughs’ books so he could read them.

Later, Leary was talking of scientific objectivity in psychology.  “The way they’ve always gone about it, their objectivity is completely subjective,” he said.  “They design the experiment and the ‘subject’ is trapped in their little grooves and runs right down the track to the point where they want him to land.  All they’re doing is getting out of an experiment what they feed into it.  I said at a psychologist’s convention that Gautama Buddha was the greatest psychologist of all time, and they were shocked.”

I had one last question before I left.  “Some games just aren’t worth playing. Nowadays, the war game is one that may kill us all.  Do you think your work can help teach human beings how to give that game up and learn a new game?”

Timothy Leary’s handsome Irish face looked tired and patient and I knew he had heard that question several hundred times.  “I certainly hope so,” he said.  Then he grinned, and told me about Allen Ginsberg, the time Leary gave him LSD in an experiment.  “He tried to call Kennedy on the phone, to persuade him and Khrushchev to try it.  He was sure it would save the world.”  Timothy Leary looked sad and tired again.  “I would like to hope so,” he said.

Driving home, my wife said to be suddenly, “It used to bug me that I never met Freud or Einstein.  Well, now I can tell my grandchildren that I met Timothy Leary.”

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