The first psilocybin psychedelic session in Cambridge during the Leary era

First Session in Cambridge – Fall 1960

The Timothy Leary Project – Jennifer Ulrich

The Timothy Leary Project cover.jpg



The first psilocybin psychedelic session in Cambridge during the Leary era.

During the summer of 1960, Tim had stayed in Mexico with a colleague, Frank Barron, and they decided to hire a curandera who was expe­rienced in taking psilocybe mushrooms and guiding sessions. She was older, and from the region north of Oaxaca in the mountains. Timothy had a very positive experience with the psilocybe mushrooms.

When he returned in the fall, he rushed up to me (George Litwin), and said we must immediately begin research on these mind-expanding chemicals, such as the psilocybe mushroom from Mexico. He selected me because I had done prior research with mescaline, and had spent a number of hours with him discussing the details of the mescaline sessions, and the possibilities for using this class of chemicals to expand consciousness and awareness of both self and environment.

We sat down that very afternoon and wrote a letter to Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, the company that first extracted the psilocybin from the mushroom, and then synthesized it in the laboratory. We expected a package of forms to fill out. Instead Sandoz sent us a large bottle of psilocybin pills and a brief note saying we should report back to them on any results we found. Timothy took the pills for safe-keep­ing. Several weeks later, he called me on a Sunday afternoon and said, “Aldous Huxley is visiting and he wants to try psilocybin. I think we will do the session this afternoon. Do you want to join us?”

1960 Psilocybin bottle.JPG

I immediately jumped in my Volvo and raced over to the house on Grant Avenue that Tim was renting from a Harvard faculty member on leave. It was a lovely home, with a large library that had both books and windows.There were comfortable couches all around.Timothy seemed quite excited, and Aldous Huxley sat calmly, introduced himself to me and said how interested he was in the possibilities of the mushroom.


After a brief discussion of the ground rules, we passed around the bottle of psilocybin. The ground rules we set were, we had to stay together, in sight of each other. We had to be peaceful and non­violent; otherwise we should expect some sort of intervention. We also agreed that we would not interfere with each others’ experience, but share what we thought was possible afterward.

The psilocybin experience seemed to last three or four hours. It wore off slowly, so it is hard to put an exact time on it. As I re­experience it and imagine what happened, I can think of the expe­rience in several phases. I have some notes in an old notebook, but they are just words I wrote down, and it is hard to interpret them.

After about 45 minutes I began to experience the effect of the psilocybin. The first effect was that my perception began to change; the walls became brighter, the room became bigger. Then I noticed the walls were waving as I walked around. I sat down to steady myself and the waving was reduced. I realized that I had disconnected some of my most basic perceptual processes. For example, I experienced a wavy motion that seemed to turn liquid eyeballs into stable objects. This is a brain orientation that happens early on in life and I felt I was reexperiencing this time when we learn to see things by interpreting our sensory input.

I closed my eyes for a few minutes and I had a great flash of images flashing by. I could barely see them they went by so fast, but they looked a lot like old photographs I had seen as a child—of my family, of my family’s family, picnicking, playing baseball, etc. I sat in a more upright position and began some very regular breathing. After a while the flow of images slowed down, and I could begin to recognize particular pic­tures. As I saw the pictures, I felt drawn into them and often became part of them. They were pictures that represented experiences to me, and I was reexperiencing these times of fear, or happiness. The kinds of images that came up included being locked in the trunk of a car with a ten-year-old dog, being thrown into the bathtub with five fish, and playing baseball with my father. There were a number of experiences in which I had felt great fear, but also experiences when I had felt great joy. Mostly they were experiences that had been very emotional to me at the time.

This went on for perhaps an hour; I reexperienced whole seg­ments of my life. Since that time, I see it as a review that has helped me integrate who I am, where I came from, and what I am here to do. Then I seemed to fall into unconsciousness for a while. I don’t remember anything but darkness.

When I awoke, I opened my eyes and the room was filled with a great light. It was brighter than anything I had ever imagined, yet it didn’t have a single bright source, like the sun. Each object emanated light of different color and intensity. It was a very positive experience. My brain said I was living in the future—this is what the future would be like. Perhaps this is true; I have no evidence of it.

The experience of great light continued for a substantial time and people began to come and go. They moved very slowly and very gracefully. When someone touched me, it was the gentlest touch and I felt better all over immediately just from the touch.

All of this made it seem like I was experiencing, if not the future, the evolution of our species; while these were people, they were extraordinary people, beautiful, gentle, graceful and full of light.

As the light experience gradually passed, I recognized the space I was in originally—the library, and I saw that each thing in it was a living form, full of light if you chose to see it that way. It has changed my view of many things. I tend to treat the world as composed of living things, both animate and inanimate.


The session ended with no particular ceremony. We got together one-by-one in the kitchen for a drink of water, or milk. Timothy talked about his experience, which had been quite strong. He com­pared it with his experience with the mushroom, which he thought was even more powerful—probably containing a greater dosage of psilocybin. Like each of us, he re-experienced parts of his life, particularly parts that were particularly painful. As I understand it, his first wife committed suicide. I doubt that this is something that Timothy, or anyone, could easily recover from.

This past, which contained both guilt and brilliant insight, came up in many of the sessions I had with Timothy. It was his theme. Did he have a reason to keep on living? Could he justify taking up space, and air and water, and food? Or was he already dead, and just failed to complete the passing?

Aldous compared the psilocybin experience with other psyche­delic experiences he had had. He was quite knowledgeable about psychedelics, having experienced peyote with the Navajo, and LSD on several occasions. He said he thought the psilocybin was much gentler and less disturbing than drugs such as LSD. In that light he thought it might have a positive social value.

His discussion of his experience with LSD led me to realize that one could take a higher dosage and have a truly ego-shattering experience from which it might be difficult to put together the pieces. With the lower dosages of psilocybin that we took (four to eight milligrams) there was perhaps a slow dissolution of the ego and the regulatory mechanisms that make it up, but it was not destructive and it was quite comfortable to return to who we had been before—albeit with some changes in perception and attitude.