Just say Know


DISCLAIMER: The following blog entry in no way condones the use of hallucinogens, or any other drugs for that matter (not even aspirin). It does however look at some interesting parallels between anecdotal accounts of the psychedelic experience and (to a very limited degree) phenomenological interpretations of adult play and creativity theory.

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of research into the 1960s counterculture. As well as looking into the influence of movements such as the Beats, Fluxus, Pop art and the Situationists, I decided to find out what I could about the work of clinical psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary, Dr. Ralph Metzner and Dr. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) who researched the effects of psychedelic substances at Harvard in the early part of that decade. A few very interesting weeks were spent reading about their work and exploits. I also looked at the Gay Dillingham documentary ‘Dying To Know’ (2016).

Two aspects of Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s ideas presented in their ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ (1964) have resonance with my own thoughts regarding the phenomenology of creativity: their use of the ‘game’ metaphor and the concept of ‘set and setting.’

The Game:

This first relates to the idea (also shared by Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) that participation in society and within any type of culture has much in common with the playing a game; each with their inherent roles, rules, distributions of power, challenges and rewards. To realise that, in play,  such elements are limited to the bounds of a field or stage or other such zone is nothing out of the ordinary. However, to be able to objectively see the rules, roles and tools of day-to-day life as having validity restricted to a particular time and place is usually not so easily done: the ego is (rightly) so invested in the game (that is its job). The psychedelic experience and ego-death, however show the game for what it is: a (social, cultural, political and historical) construct. The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung discusses the tendency for those heavily invested in ‘the game’ to identify with, on a personal level, that which, in fact, resides outside the individual:

the humourless way in which many men [sic] identify themselves with their business or their titles. The office I hold is certainly my special activity; but it is also a collective factor that has come into existence historically through the cooperation of many people and whose dignity rests solely on collective approval. When, therefore, I identify myself with my office or title, I behave as though I myself were the whole complex of social factors of which that office consists, or as though I were not only the bearer of the office, but also and at the same time the approval of society. I have made an extraordinary extension of myself and have usurped qualities which are not in me but outside me. (1953, 7:227)

This is not to ignore or refute the fact that human beings clearly have needs related to belonging, being loved and for self-esteem that, if not met may give rise to trauma, neuroses and maladaptive behaviour. The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970a) comments:

All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, usually high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. These needs may therefore be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for mastery and competence, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom. Second, we have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), status, fame and glory, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, dignity, or appreciation…Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness, and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends. An appreciation of the necessity of basic self-confidence and an understanding of how helpless people are without it can be easily gained from a study of severe traumatic neurosis. (p. 45)

Set and Setting:

Psychedelics leave the user highly susceptible to initial (and changing) inner and outer conditions, as well as suggestion. Leary, Metzner and Alpert therefore emphasise, in their ‘manual’ The Psychedelic Experience (1964), the importance of what they call set (the inner state of the participant) and setting (the direct environment at the time of the experience), as well as the solemn role of a guide who can help orientate the participant when they experience trouble, likening the former to a figurative air-traffic controller of sorts.

In their forward to Alan Watts’s 1962 book ‘The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness’ (1965) Leary and Alpert had the following to say about the importance of set and setting and the potentialities of the human cortex (as opposed to any drug):

For the last two years, staff members of the Center for Research in Personality at Harvard University have engaged in systematic experiments with these substances [i.e. mescaline, lysergic acid, and psilocybin]. Our first inquiry into the biochemical expansion of consciousness has been a study of the reactions of Americans in a supportive, comfortable naturalistic setting. We have had the opportunity of participating in over one thousand individual administrations. From our observations, from interviews and reports, from analysis of questionnaire data, and from pre- and postexperimental differences in personality test results, certain conclusions have emerged. (1) These substances do alter consciousness. There is no dispute on this score. (2) It is meaningless to talk more specifically about the “effect of the drug.” Set and setting, expectation, and atmosphere account for all specificity of reaction. There is no “drug reaction” but always setting-plus-drug. (3) In talking about potentialities it is useful to consider not just the setting-plus-drug but rather the potentialities of the human cortex to create images and experiences far beyond the narrow limitations of words and concepts….The drug is just an instrument. (pp. vii-viii)

The concept of set and setting is also key to a technique that I’ve developed for freeing up creative action based on the work of play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith: in particular, his ideas regarding how play is an act that temporarily negates the usual framing classes. That is, to play is reframe experience and negotiate (amongst other aspects) what will be allowed inside the conceptual frame and (and, arguably, more importantly) what won’t. This framing may often be externalised and reinforced by corresponding physical or systemic boundaries and markers that clearly indicate where play is and where it isn’t. As Apter warns, adult play must have its time and place (1991) if it is not to lead to inappropriate responses to real events with real consequences.

Turning off:

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s lives may have been very different if not for the creativity scholar and psychologist Frank Barron. As a friend of Leary’s, upon hearing that Leary and Alpert had planned a trip across North and South America, including Mexico, he recommended contacting an anthropologist who knew about the Teonanácatl mushrooms used in shamanic ritual by the Aztecs (Dass, 1971). It was Leary’s experience with these natural psychedelics that inspired the trio to research the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD): originally synthesised (and accidentally ingested) by Albert Hoffman at Sandoz laboratories in the late 1940s.

Interestingly, LSD itself is not responsible for the quality of the psychedelic experience, but acts as chemical key suppressing certain neurological patterns and structures associated with day-to-day living and survival. It is this suppression that allows other ‘levels’ (for want of a better term) of mind to be experienced. It should be pointed out that Leary, Metzner and Alpert were psychologists not neurologists. Oliver Sacks has some interesting insights (in particular, regarding hallucinations) that stems from a contemporary Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)-research-informed perspective, along with his own personal (think ‘swinging sixties’) experiences.

The turning off (or rather, idling) of select brain function(s) is, in some ways, congruent with the aims and means of meditation. It also has interesting parallels with my own findings (albeit on a much smaller scale) regarding recent advances in the phenomenological understanding of creativity and play, which are similarly proscriptive in nature. That is, play helps artists to reframe experience by excluding otherwise dominant and habitual socialised behaviour and perceptions.

Heaven and Hell:

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s attempts to map out the terrain of the psychedelic experience in a methodical manner were unsuccessful until they noticed that subjects responded well to the Bardo metaphor encountered in the ‘Tibetan Book of The Dead’. As the text provided key points of orientation, it was used as a basis for a manual to be developed.

Leary and Alpert’s experiences would eventually inspire them to follow very different life paths and personal quests for transformation. Alpert asserted that he was never able to find sufficient, lasting change in his personality or the answer to his burning questions with prolonged hallucinogen use. Ever the rebel, Leary continued to follow (and proselytize) the LSD path throughout his life. Alpert famously embraced Eastern mysticism, meditation and service as his liberation vehicle of choice, swapping LSD for LSR (“Love, Serve, Remember”- at the advice of his guru, Baba Neem Karoli). Alpert renamed himself Ram Dass (‘servant of G-d’) and went onto write the ‘countercultural bible’ Be Here Now (1971).

And yet here even, psychoanalyst Carl Jung warns (at least for the Westerner) that perils await those who dabble with disciplines appropriated from other cultures without the associated sociological, cultural structures and guides in place to support them in their efforts. Here, again, we see set, setting and guides being as essential :

I do not doubt that the Eastern liberation from vices, as well as from virtues, is coupled with detachment in every respect, so that the yogi is translated beyond this world, and quite inoffensive. But I suspect every European attempt at detachment of being mere liberation from moral considerations. Anybody who tries his hand at yoga ought therefore to be conscious of its far-reaching consequences, or else his [sic] so-called quest will remain a futile pastime. (1964, 11:825-826)

Jung goes on to specify how attempting to manipulate consciousness can, at times, have unexpected repercussions (such as ‘inflation’):

Positive inflation comes very near to a more or less conscious megalomania; negative inflation is felt as an annihilation of the ego. (Jung 1966, 16:472) … An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness….It seems to me of some importance, therefore, that a few individuals, or people individually, should begin to understand that there are contents which do not belong to the ego-personality, but must be ascribed to a psychic non-ego. This mental operation has to be undertaken if we want to avoid a threatening inflation. (1968, 12:563)

L to R: Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) & Timothy Leary, reunited at Harvard in 1983 (a good-humoured-but-lively debate).

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s initial attempts to map out the terrain of the psychedelic experience in some kind of methodical manner were unsuccessful using their usual 20th century psychological frameworks. Later, they noticed that subjects taking part in sessions responded well to guidance based upon a ‘Bardo’ metaphor derived from the Tibetan Book of The Dead, an ancient text mentioned in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954). Key points of orientation could now be communicated between guide and ‘voyager’ and the ancient text was subsequently used as the basis for a psychedelic ‘manual’: The Psychedelic Experience (1964). This appropriation of religious symbolism from the East (including also use of the Tao Te Ching), though sincere, helped serve a secondary, somewhat more pragmatic, purpose. By framing their research group as a religious organization, with the psychedelics as ‘sacraments’, they hoped to avoid trouble with the authorities. Leary (2001) recounts:

wisely or foolishly, we got sacred off this scientific approach. After being expelled from Havard, Mexico, Antigua, and Dominica in the late spring of 1963, we cravenly decided that the authorities were not ready for the 21st century concept – Every Citizen a Scientist. So we fell back to the familiar historical turf upon which most earlier freedom movements had fought the battle – religion (p.2) …The lawyers agreed. There is nothing the Bill of Rights to protect scientific freedom…but there was a First Amendment protection of Freedom of Religion. (p.4)

The most dangerous man in America:

President Richard Nixon once called Timothy Leary “The most dangerous man in America.” High praise indeed! One particular Leary anecdote concerning his run ins with the US government seems stranger than fiction today. In the late sixties, Leary ran for Governor of California (opposite Ronald Reagan) but was allegedly “framed by the ‘man'”, duly incarcerated and asked to fill out a psychiatric assessment metric that he himself had written many years before. Armed with the knowledge of how to answer so that he would be placed in a minimum security prison with light duties, he filled out the form accordingly and later escaped with the help of Leftist militants, the Weather Underground.

After decades of bad publicity fueled in no small way by Leary’s proselytizing and well-publicised ‘recreational’ use of psychedelics within the West Coast sixties counter culture (not to mention the documented horrors of the CIA’s MK-Ultra program), much of the hysteria surrounding the topic of psychedelics has subsided to a point where research into their effects has resumed in both Britain and the US with the help of non-invasive MRI technology.

Timothy Leary: The Game

While Leary’s later writings verge on mysticism-cum-science fiction, his ideas may yet turn out to have, or at least inspire, practical applications in the distant future (areas such as transhumanism come to mind). As is the nature of science fiction, today’s fantasy may well become tomorrow’s reality. In his later years, Leary became interested in the possibilities of cyber-space, computing and games. If you can get past the retro user-interface you might enjoy playing Leary’s Mind Mirror game developed together with Electronic Arts in 1986 (and which sold some 65,000 copies). It’s a virtual experience in the most rudimentary sense (something more like role playing with cards than a computer game). It isn’t quite an acid trip, but it does help you to explore the plasticity of ego-constructs in a really fun (and funny) way.

You can play the game (online) here. Enjoy.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Coleman, G., Dorje, G., Dalai Lama XIV, and Jinpa, T. (2009). The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. London UK: Penguin UK.

Dass, R. (1971). Be Here Now. New Mexico, US: Lama Foundation.

Dillingham, G. (2016). Dying To Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary. [Motion Picture]. US: Alive Mind Cinema.

Heiser, M. S. (2015) The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-war popular music-making context. (Doctoral dissertation). Brisbane, Australia: Griffith University.

Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Jung, Carl. 1953-1974. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Translated and edited by G. Adler and R.F.C. Hull. 21 vols. Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Alpert, R. (1964). The Psychedelic Experience. New York, NY: University Books.

Leary, T. (2001). Your Brain is God. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing.

Maslow, A. (1970a). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. (1970b). Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. New York, NY: Penguin.

Watts, A. (1965). The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York, NY: Vintage Books.