Harvard Launches the Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture

Harvard Launches the Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture

Shannon Ratliff
Shannon Ratliff
October 24, 2023
4 min

Harvard University announced a new field of study, the Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture, after a generous donation of $16 million from the Gracias Family Foundation. The study is an interdisciplinary tract between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Law School, and Harvard Divinity School. The program will focus on psychedelic research and the impact of psychedelics on our society.

The gift includes an endowed professorship with a broad focus on human health with research support. “Harvard is uniquely poised to become the most exciting place to debate, discuss, and innovate in this area,” said Robin Kelsey, Shirey Carter Burden Professor of Photography and dean of arts and humanities.

“This is a visionary gift, in that it is the first to take the so-called psychedelic renaissance beyond medicine by recognizing the importance of the humanities in exploring the impact and potential of these remarkable substances,” said Michael Pollan, professor of the practice in Harvard’s Creative Writing program and Lewis K. Chan Arts Lecturer. His seminal work, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller in 2018 and refueled the hallucinogenic psychotherapy approach.

The Study of Psychedelics in Society and Culture will focus on humanistic and social scientific viewpoints, including law, policy, ethics, religion and spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and art and literature. Additionally, the gift will support the growth of existing programs at the Center for the Study of World Religions’ Transcendence and Transformation Initiative and fund a new set of fellowships, both at the CSWR and the MHC.

The history of Harvard and psychedelics

Harvard has long been at the forefront of psychedelics, starting with the Harvard Psilocybin Project, later known as the Harvard Psychedelic Project. Led by Harvard psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass, the project was conducted from 1960-1963. The project aimed to study the therapeutic potential and effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics on human consciousness.

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One of the most famous experiments from the project was the Good Friday Experiment of 1962, in which theology students were given psilocybin during a religious service to investigate the drug’s ability to induce religious experiences. This is also known as the Marsh Chapel Experiment, after the place where the study took place.

Both Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert faced criticism and scrutiny over their research into the effects of psychedelics, particularly psilocybin. Accusations arose regarding their abuse of power, pressuring graduate students to participate and providing psychedelics to undergraduates, violating university agreements.

Additionally, their own use of the psychedelic drugs during experiments was questioned, with Leary arguing it was essential for understanding the participant’s experiences. At the time of the experiment, only mescaline and the Peyote cactus were illegal, and it would be five years until psilocybin and LSD were deemed illegal.

Concerns amplified after two students were hospitalized post-psilocybin consumption, leading to debates in The Harvard Crimson and increased attention from the Harvard administration and external health authorities. Despite these controversies, both believed in the right to explore one’s inner self through psychedelics, viewing any denial of this as a step toward totalitarianism.

The tensions over the use of psychedelics peaked with a meeting organized by the Harvard Center for Research in Personality, which evolved into a de facto trial against the duo. Reports in The Crimson and other local newspapers intensified the crisis, leading to state investigations. In April, while state authorities allowed the continuation of psilocybin experiments with specific conditions, further disputes, including Alpert’s refusal to surrender his psilocybin stash, tarnished their reputations.

By May 1963, Alpert was dismissed for distributing psilocybin to an undergrad. However, initially, respected academics, their clashes with Harvard and promotion of psychedelic use transitioned them into prominent figures of the emerging counterculture. After the study, Harvard University stayed away from psychedelic research until the 1990s, where the strict legal environment and the lack of funding made it almost impossible for studies to be conducted.

Psychedelics in Harvard’s new millennia

By the 2000s, there was a slow but increasing shift towards re-examining the potential benefits of psychedelics in clinical settings. Organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) were funding studies into the potential benefits of MDMA for PTSD and other conditions.

The 2010s saw a significant resurgence in psychedelic research, with multiple institutions exploring the potential therapeutic benefits of substances like psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, and ayahuasca for a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction.

While much of the groundbreaking research during this decade came from institutions outside of Boston, like Johns Hopkins University and Imperial College London, there’s no doubt that the global academic community, including scholars at Harvard, became more aware and open to the potential benefits of psychedelics. Publications, symposia, and more open discussions began to circulate widely, and the stigma around psychedelics began diminishing.

The newest study at Harvard reflects the change in the university’s relationship to psychedelics over the last few years. In 2021, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School established its Project on Psychedelics Law and Regulation (POPLAR)to examine the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychedelics in research, commerce, and therapeutics. 

The Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at Harvard Divinity School examines psychedelics relating to altered states of consciousness, the relationship of mind and matter, and the global history of spirituality and religion.

The Center for the Neuroscience of Psychedelics at Massachusetts General Hospital launched in 2021 to look at psychedelics as a safe treatment for a myriad of mental health issues, from PTSD to depression.

“One of Harvard’s greatest strengths is our ability to bring together experts from various fields to engage in vibrant discussions that advance scholarship from multiple angles,” said Bruno Carvalho, interim director of the Mahindra Humanities Center. “This initiative will give us the space to explore and enrich public dialogue around psychedelics, including their potentials, as well as ethical and social implications.”

As the psychedelics slip further into the mainstream, Harvard University’s new program of study will certainly be something to watch. As we learn more about the power of psychedelics to help with formerly treatment-resistant depression and other debilitating mental illnesses, it is clear that mushrooms are here to heal. We just have to be ready to accept it.


Shannon Ratliff

Shannon Ratliff

Head of Content

Table Of Contents

The history of Harvard and psychedelics
Psychedelics in Harvard's new millennia

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