To the Editor:
I am sure that Michael Pollan’s eloquent essay “Smoking the Toad: How Do You Put a Drug Trip Into Words?” (Dec. 30) will contribute, if only indirectly, to the present re-emergence of legal research into the healing possibilities of psychedelic substances. I was a doctoral student at Harvard when the young Prof. Timothy Leary was engaged in his highly promising research with psychedelics. I knew Leary well and we stayed in touch for years, but I became increasingly disappointed and then angry as he escalated his work into a pseudo-religion (the “League of Spiritual Discovery”), with himself as the white-robed high priest. After that, and for many other reasons, psychedelic research was viewed with suspicion and eventually outlawed. But now the door has been opened a bit.
My own pivotal experience with psychedelics took place when some Huichole Indians invited me and a couple of other outsiders to join them in the Mexican desert for a few days during their annual “hunt for the little deer,” the name they give to the peyote plant, which they use in their rituals. Fascinated, I quickly accepted. The Huichole welcomed us and taught us how to dig out the “little deer” without cutting its root. Then they asked us to gather around our own campfire while they sat around theirs, about a hundred yards away.
That night, as we quietly, even reverently, ingested pieces of the little deer, I began to see why “psychedelic” (mind-expanding) and not some negative term is the proper word for peyote and related substances. During that memorable night I did not hallucinate. Instead, I saw all the ordinary things around me — our canvas tent, the crackling fire, the cactus plants, the sand dunes, the people in our group and the stars — with both a vivid and a comforting clarity. When the sun eventually rose, I knew why the ancestors of these Huichole saw it as the beginning of a new world.
Thanks to Pollan and many others, we may now be on the threshold of a period in which ancient spiritual practices and modern medical research can combine to bring clarity and healing to many troubled souls.
The writer is Hollis professor of divinity, emeritus, at Harvard University.
To the Editor:
Michael Pollan has written an outstanding historical review and personal experiential narrative of psychedelic drugs. It effectively interweaves stories about individuals who played a role in the psychedelic movement or have personally experimented with and experienced psychedelics for mind-expanding or therapeutic purposes. But his essay and his book (“How to Change Your Mind”) are less accurate in their scientific
Pollan’s sources of information heavily represent metaphysical constructs of psychological theories brought to bear on the psychedelic experience rather than rigorous neuroscientific analysis. While interesting and possibly emphasized for artistic purposes or as a literary device, they are sorely lacking in scientific
In addition, the idea of proposing the wholesale use of these drugs for any and all mental disorders and thereby construing mental illness as a unitary continuum of conditions is simplistic and misleading. Psychedelics have great heuristic value for understanding the structure and function of the mind and for potential therapeutic uses. However, the research to determine their value must be done carefully and rigorously while bearing the potential personal and political risks in mind. Conflating the potential therapeutic use of these drugs with spiritual enlightenment is reckless and risks taking research down the same rabbit hole that misdirected Timothy Leary decades ago.
JEFFREY LIEBERMAN, M.D.
The writer is chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a past president of the American Psychiatric Association.
To the Editor:
With interest I read Michael Pollan’s account of the difficulty of translating a psychedelic trip into prose and recognized his comment about sounding like a Hallmark card. My final acid trip occurred in 1968 when, terrified, I looked in the mirror and saw that I’d completely disappeared, which led me to experience what was commonly known then as the “clear white light,” meaning I had more or less reached the limit of what LSD could do. A few hours later, still under the influence, I sat with some friends in the student union. The center of each of their foreheads was radiating some sort of ray that connected one to the other. Among other things, I said, “We are all one!” and someone pointed out that I sounded like a George Harrison lyric. Better than Hallmark, but still not utterly original.
BEVERLY COVE, MASS.
To the Editor:
At a time when the array of entertainments competing for people’s attention is growing exponentially, the number of living witnesses to the Shoah is rapidly dwindling and anti-Semitism and even outright Holocaust denial are surging, Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation,” reviewed by Ruth Franklin (Jan. 13), is a commendable way to maintain the book’s essential integrity while introducing it to a new audience.
STEPHEN A. SILVER