Aldous Huxley’s Role in the History of Psychedelic Science

Aldous Huxley

At the popular lifestyle blog an anonymous writer confesses to taking small doses of psychedelic mushrooms to prevent her migraines. An article at hipster news site reports that people are taking tiny doses of LSD to deal with work anxiety. The Rolling Stone claims that the same drug is becoming a hot commodity in high tech business circles. It’s called microdosing—the practice of taking small amounts of psychoactive substances—and its all the rage.

Trendy though it may be, people have been looking to psychedelics as potential answers to a variety of ailments since time immemorial. Natural psychedelics like peyote have a long history of usage in traditional cultures, many of which draw little distinction between illnesses of the body and of the spirit. Here in the western world, our relationship with psychedelics has been ambiguous. Drug warriors warn a trepidatious public that these substances can do nothing but harm, and those who would advocate for their usage do so at the risk of their careers—and maybe their freedom.

British writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, wagered his professional reputation in 1954 when he published The Doors of Perception, a work describing his experiences with the drug mescaline. Very little was known at the time about mescaline and other hallucinogens, and the book, provocative as it was, became a bestseller.

The book might have seemed to have come out of nowhere to people who knew him better for his fiction, but Huxley’s experiment with mescaline was long in the making. Author Allene Symons writes about this period of intellectual exploration in her new book Aldous Huxley’s Hands. Symons’s father was a friend of Huxley’s before and during the time of his experiments with psychedelics, a fact that he revealed to his daughter during the last years of his life. His recollections, along with Huxley’s personal correspondences, paint a picture of a man committed to plumbing the very depths of his mind.

Huxley was keenly interested in exploring the potential of human consciousness for many years prior to taking mescaline, and held weekly get-togethers with others of like mind: visionaries, philosophers, paranormal investigators, and psychiatrists. This group included luminaries like Dr. Humphrey Osmond, an eminent psychiatrist who would go on to conduct groundbreaking research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for schizophrenia; Robert Hutchins, head of the Ford Foundation; and Gerald Heard, a former BBC announcer turned mystic who founded Trabuco College, a spiritual retreat.

The group attracted its fair share of controversial figures as well. Future Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was an occasional visitor to the group. Huxley was fascinated by the potential of Hubbard’s newly-published work Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, and actually sat for four “auditing” sessions. Ironically, Hubbard’s church would go on to take a hard stance against psychedelics and Huxley would become one of the biggest advocates for their use.

Unlike Hubbard, Huxley’s band of experimenters began to see psychedelics as possible therapeutic tools that, if used correctly, could bring peace to troubled minds. Following Huxley’s suggestion that LSD might help to break the grip of alcohol addiction, Osmond supplied a dose to Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Later, Osmond and a colleague experimented with using LSD as a treatment for schizophrenia. Huxley, Osmond, and other members of their circle made steps toward creating a professional organization devoted to exploring the healing potential of psychedelic substances, but were forced to disband due to lack of funding. This would become a familiar refrain in the history of psychedelic science.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and several other psychedelic drugs as Schedule I controlled substances. Schedule I drugs are considered to have a high potential for abuse, and no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. Disturbingly enough, even as the federal government lobbied for tougher drug laws, the Central Intelligence Agency was busy conducting secret experiments into LSD’s potential as a mind control agent .

Scientific experimentation with Schedule I drugs is technically illegal under the Controlled Substances Act but there are signs—small signs—that the tide could be changing. The government has quietly approved a handful of experiments here and there, mostly due to lobbying from groups like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or “MAPS.”

In 2010, a team of researchers published their findings that a group of terminally ill cancer patients experienced a lasting reduction in their anxiety after receiving a therapeutic dose of psilocybin. The same drug has been used as an experimental treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. MDMA, better known by its street name “ecstacy,” has been successfully used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and ketamine, a tranquilizer with psychoactive properties, has shown potential as a fast-acting cure for depression.

Huxley was a passionate voice for the responsible use of psychedelic substances, and encouraged the scientific establishment of his day to give them their attention. The relative paucity of scientific research on the medicinal benefits of these drugs means that today’s microdosing young professionals are on their own when it comes to any potential side-effects or complications that might arise from the longterm use of psychedelics.