How to Change Behavior: Timothy Leary’s First Article on Psilocybin

Timothy Leary lives on the Internet

[disinfo ed.’s note: the following is an excerpt from Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years: Early Writings on LSD and Psilocybin with Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, Ralph Metzner, and others by James Penner]
Timothy Leary’s “How to Change Behavior” was presented at the International Congress of Applied Psychology in Copenhagen in August of 1961, and was also reprinted in David Solomon’s LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug (1964). Leary had organized the plenary session of the International Congress; it included several distinguished speakers, including the novelist Aldous Huxley, Frank Barron of U.C. Berkeley, Richard Alpert and Henry A. Murray of Harvard, and himself. Each speaker was also an advocate of ­consciousness-expanding drugs. Psilocybin—synthesized magic mushrooms—was the drug of choice in 1961.

“How to Change Behavior” was Leary’s first full-length article after his famous virginal experience with Mexican mushrooms in Cuernavaca in August of 1960 and as such, this article represents his first major work on psychedelics. Leary wanted a big stage for his presentation because he had a controversial message: a symbolic break with behaviorism, the dominant paradigm in applied psychology in the early 1960s. In this article, Leary notes that behaviorism is predicated on the “subject-object model” that attempts “. . . to observe, measure, manipulate, control, and predict—the subject’s overt behavior.” In place of behaviorism, Leary proposes a radical new paradigm: behavior change through consciousness-expanding drugs.

Leary’s new doctrine rests on the notion that all cultural behavior is simply a “game” that we play. Each game—­psychology, religion, politics—has specific roles, rules, and goals. Consciousness-expanding drugs are crucial because they allow the user to see beyond the game and its rules. Leary’s description of human behavior as an elaborate game anticipates postmodernism’s suggestion that all forms of culture and language are simply social constructions that can be manipulated for various ideological ends (“the nationality game. It is treason not to play. The racial game. The religious game”). Leary’s rejection of all social constructions is followed by a rejection of the myth of the self: “the most treacherous and tragic game of all. The game of individuality, the ego game. The Timothy Leary game. Ridiculous how we confuse it, overplay it. Our own mystics and the Eastern philosophers have been warning us about this danger for centuries.”

For Leary’s theory of liberation, consciousness-expanding drug are crucial because they temporarily “unplug the ego, the game machinery and the mind (that cluster of game concepts)”—a process he would later term “deconditioning.” Leary notes that drugs are crucial because they allow the user to transcend this “game view” of reality. Leary’s radical vision was bound to alarm and shock many of his colleagues, many of whom were card-carrying behaviorists. They resented Leary’s evangelistic tone and the suggestion that their methodology was becoming obsolete.

Perhaps the most controversial idea that Leary puts forth in his paper is the need to abandon the notion that the scientist must be a detached observer. Instead, Leary advocates a hands-on approach to psychological research: the psychologist/­scientist must take the drugs he/she is studying. This methodological issue would become a major point of contention in the Harvard Drug Scandal of 1963. Leary anticipates that his therapeutic approach is bound to create alarm and suspicion. Thus, Leary ends his paper with a plea for tolerance: “those of us who talk and write about the games of life are invariably misunderstood. We are seen as frivolous or cynical anarchists tearing down the social structure. This is an unfortunate misapprehension. Actually, only those who see culture as a game, only those who take an evolutionary point of view can appreciate and treasure the exquisitely complex magnificence of what human beings do and have done.” Unfortunately, Leary’s plea for tolerance and mutual respect fell on deaf ears. Leary would be expelled from Harvard in less than two years.

– James Penner

How to Change Behavior by Timothy Leary, Ph.D.

A presentation at the International Congress of Applied Psychology in Copenhagen in August of 1961, and also in LSD: The Consciousness-Expanding Drug by David Solomon, published in 1964 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons: pages 97–113.

It is my plan to talk to you tonight about methods of effecting change—change in man’s behavior and change in man’s consciousness.

Behavior and consciousness. Please note the paired distinction. Behavior and consciousness. Up until recently I considered myself a behavioral scientist and limited the scope of my work to overt and measurable behavior. In so doing I was quite in the Zeitgeist of modern psychology, studying the subject matter which our American predecessors defined some fifty years ago, behavior, routinely following the ground rules they laid down, scrupulously avoiding that which is most important to the subject—his consciousness—concentrating instead, on what is most important to we who seek to observe, measure, manipulate, control and predict—the subject’s overt behavior.

This decision to turn our backs on consciousness is, of course, typically Western and very much in tune with the experimental, objective bent of Western science. Professor Huston Smith of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has pointed out some basic differences between Western approach and the philosophies of China and India. Differences which have some importance for the applied psychologist concerned with behavior change. Professor Smith reminds us that our Western culture has stressed measurement and control of objects; whereas China has historically emphasized the rules of the social encounter; and Indian philosophy the development and expansion of human consciousness. Tonight I speak to you from a point midway between the Western and Eastern hemispheres of the cortex presenting a theory and method which is Chinese in that behavior is seen as an intricate social game; Indian in its recognition of consciousness and the need to develop a more cosmic awareness, and finally Western in its concern to do good measurably well.

I plan to present, first, some thoughts on behavior change, then some new conceptions of consciousness and its alteration, and finally some data from recent research in these areas.

Behavior and Its Change

Except for reflexes and instinctual reactions and random muscular movements (which fall into the province of physiology) all behavior is learned.

Behavior is therefore artifactual and culturally determined. Behavior sequences might usefully be considered as game sequences.

The use of the word “game” in this sweeping context is likely to be misunderstood. The listener may think I refer to “play” as opposed to the stern, real-life, serious activities of man. But as you shall see I consider the latter as “game.”

At this point you are asking for and you deserve a definition. What do I mean by game? A game is a learned cultural sequence characterized by six factors:

1.Roles: The game assigns roles to the human beings involved.

2.Rules: A game sets up a set of rules which hold only during the game sequence.

3.Goals: Every game has its goal or purpose. The goals of baseball are to score more runs than the opponents. The goals of the game of psychology are more complex and less explicit but they exist.

4.Rituals: Each game has its conventional behavior pattern not related to the goals or rules but yet quite necessary to comfort and continuance.

5.Language: Each game has its jargon. Unrelated to the rules and goals and yet necessary to learn and use.

6.Values: Each game has its standards of excellence or goodness.

Baseball and basketball have clearly definable roles, rules, rituals, goals, languages and values. Psychology, religion, politics are games, too, learned, cultural sequences with clearly definable roles, rules, rituals, goals, jargons, values. They are less explicitly formulated than the so-called sports and therein, dear friends, lies the pity. For this simple reason millions have died and we may die tomorrow.

The behavior which psychiatrists label as disease entities can be considered as games, too. Dr. Thomas Szasz, the distinguished ­psychoanalyst-philosopher, in his book, The Myth of Mental Illness, suggests that “hysteria” is the name we give to a certain doctor-patient game involving deceitful helplessness. The “bluff” in poker is a similar deceitful but perfectly legitimate game device. Psychiatry according to this model is behavior-change game.

Far from being frivolous, many so-called “play games” are superior in their behavioral science and in their behavior-change techniques to the “not-called games,” such as psychiatry and psychology.

In terms of epistemology and scientific method employed, the “game” of American 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 (RBI, runs batted in; ERA, earned run average, etc.). Baseball employs well-trained raters to judge those rare events which are not obviously and easily coded. Their raters are called 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. And most important of all, baseball scientists understand the basic, cosmic lesson of percentage: that the greatest player gets on the average one hit in three tries, the winning team loses at least one game in three, that no team can lead the league every year, neither Rome, nor Athens, nor London, nor Moscow, nor Washington. Those who wish to measure, summarize, predict, and change human behavior could do worse than model themselves after this so-called “game.”

All behavior involves learned games. But only that rare Westerner we call “mystic” or who has had a visionary experience of some sort sees clearly the game structure of behavior. Most of the rest of us spend our time struggling with roles and rules and goals and concepts of games which are implicit and confusedly not seen as games, trying to apply the roles and rules and rituals of one game to other games.

Worst of all is the not knowing that it is a game. Baseball is a clean and successful game because it is seen as a game. You can shift positions. You know the game is limited in space and in time. You know how you are doing. You sign your contract. You renew your contract. You can quit, start a new game.

Culturally, stability is maintained by keeping the members of any ­cultural group from seeing that the roles, rules, goals, rituals, language, and values are game structures. The family game is treated by most cultures as far more than a game, with its implicit contracts, limited in time and space. The nationality game. 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. The Timothy Leary game. Ridiculous how we confuse this game, overplay it. Our own mystics and the Eastern philosophers have been warning us about this danger for centuries.

Cultural institutions encourage the delusion that the games of life are inevitable givens involving natural laws of behavior. These fixed delusions tend to rigidify behavior patterns. This rigidity, as Professor Osgood pointed out in his significant opening address of the Copenhagen Congress, now threatens the very survival of the human species itself (Osgood, 1962).

So now we come to behavior change. The currently popular method of behavior change is called psychotherapy. A medical game. A curing of the psyche. Psychotherapy interprets confusion and inefficiency in game playing as illness. We call it sickness and attempt to cure it employing the medical game. Consider the football player who doesn’t know the rules. Perhaps he picks up the ball and runs off the field. He is punished for not playing the game correctly. He feels badly. Shall we pronounce him sick and call the doctor?

The failure to understand the game nature of behavior leads to confusion and eventually to helplessness. Helplessness. Let’s look at this word for a moment. It’s a big concept in understanding science, technology, rehabilitation and, for that matter, the working of the mind itself.

The basic aim of physical science is to reduce human helplessness in the face of the physical environment. Physical science has other goals, of course: to understand, explain, control, measure, predict. But certainly these are ends rather than means. Why explain? Why predict? To lessen fearful ignorance. The technologies which have grown up around the physical sciences, engineering, medicine, also take as their goal the reducing of human helplessness.

Do they not stem from the same survival motive? And the social technologies—psychiatry, social work, applied psychology—is not their goal the reduction of confusion and the increase in human freedom?

Judged by these criteria the game of Western science has not been a glorious success. Our helplessness in the face of physical disease has certainly diminished. Our control over natural forces has given us a sense of mastery. We live longer and healthier lives. Good.

We have created a game model—the subject-object model—which allows us on the one hand to dominate “object” but which has created a world full of human objects. Most of what we do in the name of science results in more and greater human helplessness.

The science game creates wonder drugs whose action is not understood by the user. And worse yet we turn over these drugs to those who play the doctor game, the medical game—whose roles, rules, rituals, language, goals and values place the patient into a passive object status.

The science game, the healing game, the knowledge game are magnificent human structures. They are our proudest game accomplishments. But they are great only as long as they are seen as game. When they go beyond this point the trouble begins—claims to a nongame reality status: the emergence of experts, professionals, priests, status-favored authorities; claims to power and control and priority. Look at the A.E.C. Look at the A.M.A. And watch out! At this point you will find that games which began with the goal of decreasing human helplessness end up increasing it.

Human beings inhabiting those areas of the globe which the geographic game calls East are, for the most part, well aware of the foregoing issues. It’s hard for Westerners to back away, and see the artifactual game structures. We are so close to our games. We have been born into them. And we are born into a philosophic system which glorifies hierarchical expertise on the one hand and helplessness on the other: monotheism, the Judaic-Christian tradition. Monotheism, that game started by a few persecuted outcasts (game losers) in the Mid-Eastern desert: the ­subject-object game; the false duality game; the manipulating, predicting, controlling game. Monotheism breeding helplessness.

Now, let’s apply this general discussion of helplessness and the behavior game to the issue of behavior change. In spite of our apparent executive control over nature we have had small success in developing behavior change games. Indeed most of our attempts to change behavior increase human helplessness, lessen human freedom and thereby exaggerate the problem we set out to solve. Our behavior change games invariably set up structures which give more power to the few and less power to the many, invidious role models: doctor-patient; professor-student; inequitable rules involving secrecy and control; the one-upmanship language we call jargon.

When people come to us and ask us to change their behavior, why can’t we do it? Why can’t we teach them to see the game structure of human society? The problem seems simple enough. Why can’t we find out what games they are caught up in? Find out what games they want to commit themselves to? Make them explicit? Help them discover the rules of the game, the role, the rituals, the goals, the concepts? Expose them to models of successful game playing; encourage them to practice; feed back objective appraisals of their performance; care for them and their game struggles? How do you care for them? You share time and space with them. Nothing else can substitute. We have little else to offer. If we don’t, they’ll learn the games of those who do share time and space. If they’re prisoners, then who will teach them behavior games? Who shares the most time and space with prisoners? That’s right, the other prisoners, older criminals and younger criminals. So who influences behavior in what direction? And who shares the most amount of time and space with prisoners? That’s right, the prison guards who, in most American prisons, teach them how to play the role of robber in the game of “cops and robbers.” And we professional middle-class experts? How much time and space do we share with the prisoners? An hour a week on the medical ward?

O.K. It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Just show people that their social identity and their entire cultural commitment is a game. They aren’t aware of it. Sure, just tell them.

Yes, you smile when I say this. It’s not quite that easy, is it? Here’s the rub. Few people, a very few people (and we Westerners call them mystics) are willing and able to admit that the game is a game. Most of our people become upset and even angry when the game is identified—the game of “I-and-all-I-stand-for.”

At this point when you hear the word “mystic” you may be uneasily wondering if you are going to be subjected to a vague metaphysical discourse on general principles. Perhaps you will be surprised to hear me suggest the hypothesis that the most effective approach to the “practical” games of life is that of applied mysticism. Identify the game structure of the event. Make sure that you do not apply the rules and concepts of other games to this situation. Move directly to solve the problem avoiding abstractions and irrelevant rituals. A mystic Martian or a person from a different culture might be an excellent consultant for a behavioral problem. They might be able to cut through irrelevant games rules to what is most relevant to survival and peace of mind.

How can we make the point? How can we learn the lesson? How can we Westerners come to see that our own consciousness is infinitely greater than our little egos and the ego games into which we are so blindly caught up? That the universe within our skulls is infinitely more than the flimsy game world which our words and minds create?

Put in a sentence—the task is to see that the mind is a tiny fragment of the brain-body complex. It is the game-playing fragment—a useful and entertaining tool but quite irrelevant to survival, and indeed usually antagonistic to well-being.

The process of getting beyond the game structure, beyond the
subject-object commitments, the dualities—this process is called the mystic experience. The visionary experience is the nongame, metagame experience. Change in behavior can occur with dramatic spontaneity once the game structure of behavior is seen. The visionary experience is the key to behavior change.

Consciousness and Its Change

How do we obtain the visionary state?

There are many methods for expanding consciousness beyond the game limits. Mr. Aldous Huxley this afternoon presented a scholarly history of the same classic and modern methods. Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, has suggested several cross-cultural methods. Have a psychotic episode. (This is to say, just stop playing the social game for a while and they’ll call you insane, but you may learn the great lesson.) Or expose yourself to some great trauma that shatters the gamesmanship out of you. Birth by ordeal is a well-documented phenomenon. The concentration camp experience has done this for some of our wisest men. Physical traumas can do it. Electric shock. Extreme fatigue. Live in another and very different culture for a year where your roles and rituals and language just don’t mean a thing. Or separate yourself from the game pressure by institutional withdrawal. Live for a while in a monastic cell. Or marry a Russian. Sensory deprivation does it. Sensory deprivation cuts through the game.

Certain forms of sensory stimulation alter consciousness beyond games. The sexual orgasm is certainly the most frequent and natural, although so brief and so built into interpersonal courtship games that it has lost much of its mystical meaning in the West. We have recently learned from W. Grey Walter and William Burroughs about photostimulation as a means of consciousness alteration. Concentrated attention to a stroboscope or flicker apparatus can produce visionary experiences.

The most efficient way to cut through the game structure of Western life is the use of drugs, consciousness-expanding drugs. From here on I shall use the abbreviation CE to refer to consciousness-expanding substances, such as LSD, mescaline, psilocybin.

Now the reaction of the Western world to consciousness-expanding drugs is extremely interesting. We tend to apply our familiar game roles, rituals, goals, rules, concepts to the non-game experience produced by these substances. Those of you who have not had the shattering exposure to such old and worshipped plants as peyote and the sacred mushroom and cannabis or such startling newcomers as psilocybin* and lysergic acid will wonder at this point about the nature of these experiences. What do these substances do? The neuro-physiological answer—the answer from outside—to this question is not yet ready. The answer from the inside (from the awareness of the subject) can be cast in countless metaphors. Let’s try a physiological analogy. Let’s assume that the cortex, the seat of consciousness, is a millionfold network of neurons, a fantastic computing machine. Cultural learning has imposed a few, pitifully small programs on the cortex. These programs may activate perhaps one-tenth or one one-hundredth of the potential neural connections. All the learned games of life can be seen as programs which select, censor, alert and thus drastically limit the available cortical response (Mr. Aldous Huxley’s reducing valves).

*Psilocybin is a synthetic of the active ingredients of the sacred mushroom of Mexico. The divinatory mushroom was introduced to the Western culture by Professor Roger Heim of Paris and R. Gordon Wasson of New York and synthesized by Dr. A. Hofmann of the Sandoz Laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, who is also known through his work on lysergic acid. We are grateful to Sandoz, Inc., for providing the research materials used in these studies.

The CE (i.e., consciousness-expanding) drugs unplug these narrow programs. They unplug the ego, the game machinery, and the mind (that cluster of game concepts). And with the ego and mind unplugged, what is left? Not the “id”; no dark, evil impulses. These alleged negative “forces” are, of course, part of the game, being simply anti-rules. What is left is something that Western culture knows little about: the open brain, the uncensored cortex—alert and open to a broad sweep. Huxley and Dr. Barron have told you in their own words what is left, and there is no need to add my lumbering prose.

There is need, however, to ask another question. Why is this ecstatic, brain-opening experience so strange and horrid to Western culture? Why have our ancestors and our colleagues tended to ignore and even to oppose the visionary experience? Mr. R. Gordon Wasson, banker, mycologist, anthropologist, gentleman-scholar turned mystic, has traced the persecution of the divine and divinatory mushroom back through the millennia. Why the irrational fear so often aroused by research on CE drugs even to this day? Perhaps because our Western world is committed to overplaying the objective, external behavior game.

In particular we overvalue the mind—that flimsy collection of learned words and verbal connections; the mind, that system of paranoid delusions with the learned self as center. And we eschew the non-mind, non-game intuitive insight outlook which is the key to the religious experience, to the love experience.

We seem to oppose any process which puts the game of here and now onto the long evolutionary timetable. This is a natural opposition and a healthy one. It is the greatest game of “the game” versus the “nongame.” Behavior versus consciousness. The universal brain-body versus the cultural mind. The ego versus the species. A dialogue old and holy, like the dialogue of sea against land.

But this old game should be made explicit if it is to be fun. Unfortunately, the West has no concepts for thinking and talking about this basic dialogue. There is no ritual for mystical experience, for the mindless vision. What should provoke intense and cheerful competition too often evokes suspicion, anger, and impatience. What can be holy and intensely educational in the action of CE drugs on the cortex finds no ritual for application. This is to me one of the greatest challenges of our times.

The nongame 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. But the West has no ritual, no game to handle the CE drug experience. In the absence of relevant rituals we can only impose our familiar games, the politics of the nervous system, the mind controlling the brain. Physicians seek to impose their game of control and prescription. The bohemians naturally strive to impose their games of back-alley secrecy. The police, the third member of the happy, symbiotic drug triangle, naturally move in to control and prosecute.

Clearly we need new rituals, new goals, new rules, new concepts to apply and use these precious substances for man’s welfare, to give the brain back to the species.

A group of investigators in the United States and Europe are now at work building up new games for the visionary experience, trying to develop new roles, rules, rituals, concepts and values. While these will, of course, vary from group to group the goal remains constant: expansion of consciousness, freedom of brain from the mind, freedom of the cortex from those centers—reticular (?), diencephalic (?), prefrontal (?)—which control, alert, censor and select what the cortex attends to. The work has hardly begun. This much is clear. The theory of the new game will be simple and basic. Space and time will be among the few variables required. Human equality will be a central principle, for the mystic experience tells us that the game differences between men are infinitely small compared with the age-old species similarities.

In our research endeavors we have developed eleven egalitarian principles based on the game nature of the human contract: equality in determining role, rule, ritual, goal, language, commitment; equality in the explicit contractual definition of the real, the good, the true, the logical; equality of the right to speak and to have access to relevant information. Any contract between men should be explicit about any temporary suspension of these equalities.

This past year at the Center for Research in Personality, Harvard University, two research projects [the Harvard Psilocybin Project and the Concord Prison Experiment] have attempted to put these egalitarian principles into operation. The first of these is a naturalistic study of drug-induced visions and the games which Americans impose on these new experiences. The second is a systematic study of the effects of consciousness-expanding drugs in a rehabilitation program. I hope that a description of these two projects will illustrate and clarify the preceding discussion.*

*The Director of the Center for Research in Personality, Prof. David C. McClelland, has provided these two projects with advice, support, and has labored to interpret our work to the nonvisionary world. All American psychologists are indebted to Professor Henry A. Murray for his pioneer explorations into the human condition. From his neighborly presence, friendly interest and deep understanding of man’s potentialities we have benefited. Dr. Frank Barron and Dr. Richard Alpert have been coinvestigators in the mushroom research. Dr. W. Madison Presnell has lent psychiatric experience, administrative enthusiasm and clinical wisdom. George Litwin, James Ciarlo, Gunther Weil, Ralph Metzner, Ralph Schwitzgebel and Jonathan Shay have played important roles in charting the new realms of consciousness. Edward Travers, John Molinski, James Maloney, Frank Rafferty, Rodney Harrington, Henry Kinney, and Donald Levine have made significant contributions to the Concord project. Mr. George Litwin and his staff have taken responsibility for the computer analysis of the questionnaire data. Mrs. Pearl Chan, research administrator, has made things run.

A Naturalistic Study of Psilocybin

The purpose of this study was to determine the effects of psilocybin when administered in a naturalistic, supportive setting, to observe the rituals and language imposed by Americans on an experience quite alien to their culture. One hundred and sixty-seven subjects were given the mushrooms, 43 female and 124 male. Of these, 26 were internationally distinguished intellectuals, scholars, artists; 10 were medical doctors, 73 were professional intellectuals, 21 nonprofessional normals, 27 were drug addicts (psychological or physical), and 10 were inmates in a state prison.

The eleven principles for the human contract led to the following operations:

1.Participants alternated roles of observer and subject, i.e., the researchers took the drug with the subjects. The humanizing effect of this procedure cannot be overestimated. Among other things the subject-object issue is clearly settled.

2.Participants were given all available information about the drug. An atmosphere of mystery and secret experimentation was avoided.

3.Participants were given control of their own dosage. A maximum dosage was determined by the research team and this maximum number of tablets was given to the subject and he was free to dose himself at the rate and amount desired.

4.A comfortable, homelike environment was employed. The sterile impersonality of the laboratory was avoided.

5.Subjects were allowed to bring a relative or friend. No subject took the drug in a group where he was a stranger.

Three sets of data were obtained: questionnaires covering the reactions; written reports and tape recordings; observations by the research team.

While the results of this study are too extensive to summarize at this point, a few major conclusions can be stated: The psilocybin experience is pleasant and educational; seventy-three percent of our subjects reported the experience as “very pleasant” or ecstatic; ninety-five percent thought the experience had changed their lives for the better.

Three out of four subjects reported happy and insightful reactions. When we recall that the drug was given only once under informal circumstances, with no attempt to be therapeutic or problem-oriented, these data stimulate thoughts about the healing-educational possibilities of psilocybin. But how do these changes come about?

The most common reaction reported is the sudden perception of the effect of abstractions, rituals, learned-game routines—ecstatic ­pleasure at being temporarily freed from these limitations, a game-free honesty. Set and suggestive contexts account for ninety-nine percent of the specific response to the drug. Thus, you cannot sensibly talk about the effects of psilocybin. It’s always the set and suggestive context triggered off by the drug. A fascinating tension between these two factors—set and context—inevitably develops. If both are positive and holy then a shatteringly sacred experience results. If both are negative then a hellish encounter ensues. There is, of course, the tendency for people to impose their familiar games on to the psilocybin experience. The more rigidly committed to the game, the stronger this tendency. If the drug-giving person is secure, flexible, supportive, then the experience is almost guaranteed to be pleasant and therapeutic. Intensely deep communication occurs. Deep insights of a personal, social, and philosophic nature take place.

The Use of Psilocybin in a Rehabilitation Program

For many people one or two psilocybin experiences can accomplish the goals of a long and successful psychotherapy, a deep understanding and game-free collaboration between participants plus insight. But what then? People vary tremendously in their readiness to move forward from this point. Many of the 167 subjects in our naturalistic study were able to exploit the close, honest relationship and the insight. They were already involved in rewarding games to which they could return with renewed vision and energy.

But many of our subjects came through the psilocybin experience with the knowledge that they were involved in nonrewarding games, caught in routines which they disliked. Some realized that they had no games they wanted to play. The “therapeutic” effect of the experience did not last for these subjects. Expanded consciousness narrowed back. They were left with pleasant memories of their visionary journey and nothing more.

After insight comes the deeper question as to the meaning of life: What games to play? Behavior change must follow change in consciousness.

Our research group is now committed to a series of investigations which seek to develop methods for perpetuating the positive effects of the psilocybin experience, methods for helping the subject select and learn new games which give meaning to life.

The first of these projects concerned itself with the rehabilitation of inmates in a state prison. In helping prisoners we have of course found that the prisoners have rehabilitated us—changed our notions about crime, punishment, taught us about their games, made us see the limitations of our middle-class conceptions, expanded our consciousness and given deeper meaning to our lives.

Ten volunteer prisoners. A maximum security prison. The recidivism rate is eighty percent. Eight of the ten would be expected back in prison a year after release. In baseball terms, eighty percent is the error percentage our team attempted to lower.

After three orientation meetings with the prisoners, the drug was given. I was the first one to take the drug in that bare hospital room behind barred windows. Three inmates joined me. Two psychologists and the other inmates served as observers—taking the drug three hours later. The psilocybin session was followed by three discussions, then another drug session, then more discussions. At this point the inmates had taken the drug an average of four times. There had been not one moment of friction or tension in some forty hours of egoless interaction. Pre-post testing has demonstrated marked changes on both objective and projective instruments: dramatic decreases in hostility, cynicism, depression, schizoid ideation; definite increases in optimism, planfulness, flexibility, tolerance, sociability.

The group has become a workshop for planning future games. Some prisoners are being trained to take over the functions of research ­assistants. They are performing the tasks of a vocational guidance clinic—preparing occupational brochures for inmates about to be released, making plans to act as rehabilitation workers after their release, for organizing a halfway house for ex-convicts. Other prisoners are using their time to prepare for the games to which they will return—the ­family game, their old job.

The psilocybin experience made these men aware of the stereotyped games in which they had been involved, the game of “cops and robbers,” the game of being a tough guy, the game of outwitting the law, the game of resentful cynicism. “My whole life came tumbling down and I was ­sitting happily in the rubble.” But insight is the beginning, and the more demanding task is to help these men choose new games, help them learn the rules, the roles, the concepts, the rituals of the new game—practical, collaborative reality education. Of course, this phase of our work requires help from others. But the helpers get helped. The businessmen who help our inmates get jobs are invited into a new and exciting game which gives more meaning to their lives.

Our work progresses slowly and against strong opposition. Our new game of allowing criminals to take over responsibility and authority and prestige as experts on “crime and rehabilitation” brings us into game competition with the professional middle class. Anger and anxiety is aroused. Society has always produced and needed a criminal class. When criminals drop their roles and begin to play a different game, incredulous panic can ensue. Can society play its game without some men acting the part of criminals? If criminals are no longer criminals, where do the rest of us stand? The game of rehabilitator and client (i.e., a professional and a criminal) is being threatened. People are upset when their games are changed.

But our new game has begun. The game statistic for measuring success is clearcut. Eighty percent of convicts return to prison. Next season will reveal how well we have played our game.

Summary

Let me summarize. We have been concerned with change in behavior and change in consciousness. It is considerably easier to change behavior if you understand the learned-game nature of behavior. This sort of insight can be brought about by the administration of consciousness-expanding drugs, of which psilocybin is the most effective. But insight must be followed by behavior change. In the “rehabilitation game” we have been developing, the role of the helper is threefold. He provides a serious, supportive context for the CE experience, sets up an atmosphere in which insight can quickly occur. He then joins with the subject in an all-out collaborative process of selecting and mastering new games. He keeps accurate records of his activities and those of his subjects so that the success of his game performance can be objectively appraised by his fellow men.

A final word of clarification: Those of us who talk and write about the games of life are invariably misunderstood. We are seen as frivolous, or cynical anarchists tearing down the social structure. This is an unfortunate misapprehension. Actually, only those who see culture as a game, only those who take this evolutionary point of view can appreciate and treasure the exquisitely complex magnificence of what human beings do and have done. To see it all as “serious, taken-for-granted reality” is to miss the point, is to derogate with bland passivity the greatness of the games we learn.

Those of us who play the game of “applied mysticism” respect and support good gamesmanship. You pick out your game. You learn the rules, rituals, concepts. You play fairly and cleanly. You don’t confuse your games with other games. You do not impose your game rituals on others’ games. You win today’s game with humility. You lose tomorrow’s game with dignity. Anger and anxiety are irrelevant because you see your small game in the context of the great evolutionary game which no one can win and no one can lose.

TiLeHaReferences

Osgood, Ch. E. “Towards international behavior appropriate to a nuclear age.” Psychology and International Affairs, Proceed. XIV Int. Congr. Appl. Psychol., vol. 1, 109–132. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1962.*

*[Charles E. Osgood was a distinguished American psychologist and noted communication theorist. In his keynote address for the Copenhagen Conference, he referenced the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Osgood was an articulate proponent of dialogue and reciprocal steps, such as nuclear disarmament, that would build trust and reduce ­tension between the superpowers. —James Penner]

Excerpted from Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years: Early Writings on LSD and Psilocybin with Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, Ralph Metzner, and others by James Penner with permission from the publisher, Park Street Press.
James Penner, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. A graduate of Brown University and the University of Southern California, he is the author ofPinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture. He lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

2 Comments on "How to Change Behavior: Timothy Leary’s First Article on Psilocybin"

  1. erte4wt4etrg | Aug 23, 2014 at 11:02 am |

    This game sucks

  2. It’s been my experience that psychedelics show us that we are more than we seem, both miniscule yet important. Like the Allegory of the Cave, most of our lives are lived as shadows on the wall with occasional glimpses of the true sunlight.

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