The Doors of Perception - Background


Mescaline is the principal agent of the psychedelic cactus peyote, which has been used in Native American religious ceremonies for thousands of years. A German pharmacologist, Arthur Heffter, isolated the alkaloids in the peyote cactus in 1891. These included mescaline, which he showed through a combination of animal and self-experiments was the compound responsible for the psychoactive properties of the plant. In 1919, Ernst Späth, another German chemist, synthesised the drug. Although personal accounts of taking the cactus had been written by psychologists such as Weir Mitchell in the US and Havelock Ellis in the UK during the 1890s, the German-American Heinrich Kluver was the first to systematically study its psychological effects in a small book called Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations published in 1928. The book stated that the drug could be used to research the unconscious mind. In the 1930s, an American anthropologist Weston La Barre, published The Peyote Cult, the first study of the ritual use of peyote amongst the Huichol people of western Mexico. La Barre noted that the Indian users of the cactus took it to obtain visions for prophecy, healing and inner strength. Most psychiatric research projects into the drug in the 1930s and early 1940s tended to look at the role of the drug in mimicking psychosis. In 1947 however, the US Navy undertook Project Chatter, which examined the potential for the drug as a truth revealing agent. In the early 1950s, when Huxley wrote his book, mescaline was still regarded as a research chemical rather than a drug and was listed in the Parke-Davis catalogue with no controls.

Huxley had been interested in spiritual matters and had used alternative therapies for some time. In 1936 he told TS Eliot that he was starting to meditate, and he used other therapies too; the Alexander Technique and the Bates Method of seeing had particular importance in guiding him through personal crises. In the late Thirties he had become interested in the spiritual teaching of Vedanta and in 1945 he published The Perennial Philosophy, which set out a philosophy that he believed was found amongst mystics of all religions. He had known for some time of visionary experience achieved by taking drugs in certain non-Christian religions. More specifically, Huxley had first heard of peyote use in ceremonies of the Native American Church in New Mexico soon after coming to the USA in 1937. He first became aware of the cactus’s active ingredient, mescaline, after reading an academic paper written by Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist working at Weyburn Mental Hospital, Saskatchewan in early 1952. Osmond’s paper set out results from his research into schizophrenia using mescaline that he had been undertaking with colleagues, doctors Abram Hoffer and John Smythies. In the epilogue to his novel The Devils of Loudon published earlier that year, Huxley had written that drugs were “toxic short cuts to self-transcendence” For the Canadian writer George Woodcock, Huxley had changed his opinion because mescaline was not addictive and appeared to be without unpleasant physical or mental side-effects, further he had found that hypnosis, autohypnosis and meditation had apparently failed to produce the results he wanted.

After reading Osmond’s paper, Huxley sent him a letter on 10 April 1952 expressing interest in the research and putting himself forward as an experimental subject. His letter explained his motivations as being rooted in an idea that the brain is a reducing valve that restricts consciousness and hoping mescaline may help access a greater degree of awareness, (an idea he later included in the book). Reflecting on his stated motivations, Woodcock wrote that Huxley had realised the ways to enlightenment were many, and prayer and meditation were techniques among others. He hoped drugs might also break down the barriers of the ego, and both draw him closer to spiritual enlightenment and satisfy his quest as a seeker of knowledge.

In a second letter on 19 April, Huxley invited Osmond to stay while he was visiting Los Angeles to attend the American Psychiatric Association convention. He also wrote that he looked forward to the mescaline experience and reassured Osmond that his doctor did not object to his taking it. Huxley had invited his friend, the writer Gerald Heard to participate in the experiment; although Heard was too busy this time he did join him for a session in November of that year.

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