CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain

By Nicolas Langlitz
University of California Press
2013; 316 pages
ISBN 9780520274822
Paperback $34.95

Nicolas Langlitz is a German polyglot, who, though trained as a physician, detoured into medical history, and later into a PhD program in medical anthropology. He is presently Assistant Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Neuropsychedelia stems directly from his use of hallucinogens in his youth and his search for meaning in this experience. This is not a chronicle of his “trips” but a history of the revival of psychedelic science since the Decade of the Brain in the 90s. Langlitz devotes two chapters to this revival. The first is devoted to big questions. Where does the idea that hallucinogens mimic insanity come from? Is the brain a reducing valve? Are hallucinogens liberating, leading to a freer more autonomous society? And that is why some libertarians fund this research? Are they the first step towards Brave New World (Huxley’s dystopia) with government mandated happy pills? Or towards Island (Huxley’s utopia) where hallucinogens are psycholytic, breaking down egos and merging people into a great sea of spirituality? A chapter devoted to “Swiss Psilocybin and US Dollars” limns a Switzerland somewhere between Big Sur and a bourgeois East German style repression. They had chemists and hippies, but it was libertarian bucks that catalyzed the psychedelic research which bucked the American War on Drugs.

Two chapters deal with Langlitz as participant/observer in two laboratories; one in Zurich, one in San Diego. In these, Langlitz unfurls the flag of anthropology and challenges the assumptions of the research. Are double-blind placebo based experiments on hallucinogens possible? Are the experiments contaminated by assumptions convenient to drug manufacturers? Psilocybin makes people hallucinate and crazy people hallucinate. Is a drug which cancels psilocybin hallucination sufficient to “cure” craziness? The variability of the human response to psilocybin due to the “set and setting” of the experiments is thrown up as a game spoiler. Can schizophrenia be boiled down to neurotransmitters? Since there are differences in the way that sane humans hallucinate without hallucinogens, and there are differences in the way that humans hallucinate with hallucinogens, might there be differences in the way insane humans hallucinate? That is, reducing the issue to neurotransmitters seems very optimistic. Langlitz talks of “local biologies,” a locution certain to generate misunderstanding among biologists.

When it comes to experimentation on mice (Chapter 4), Langlitz suggests that it is wrongheaded, so to speak, to say that mice hallucinate in any way that is an appropriate model for humans. How can you model mental disease in (other) animals if all you have to observe is behavior? And if the model of the PPI (pre-pulse inhibition) is germane to the effects of psilocybin on organisms, mice are decidedly different from humans. Oddly, Langlitz suggests that “set and setting” interfere with animal research just as it does with humans. Then there is the notion that the brain is a “reducing valve” which keeps us from being distracted by the world around us and that psilocybin opens the doors of perception (thanks Aldous!) flooding the helpless mind. But dammit, some dopers report that they can concentrate really, really, really hard on that mimosa blossom in the moonlight on the tree behind the barn—despite the world’s true cacophony. Is psilocybin here the reducing valve?

The last two chapters are spent trying to figure out if the world has been changed more by hallucinogens than science. Science “disenchants” the world saying “that’s not magic, honey, that’s chemistry!” But is that enough? Maybe for every disenchantment science delivers us, Madison Ave. offers us two “re-enchantments”? Can science tell us what to do? How to live? Hallucinogens are seen as the libertarian, anarchist tools which undermine the authority of religion and which make each of us the captains of our own spirituality. Will psycholytics make us better, dissolving those pesky egos? Will it make us more spiritual, more reverent of life itself? Or just more advanced cynics?

Read the book! Carry a big dictionary!

— Review by Odin Toness
— Originally published in Fungi