Visions That The Plants Gave Us

LSD and Changing Ideas of Mental Illness:
William Burroughs' and Dilworth Wayne Woolley's
Experiments with Hallucinogenic Drugs

Publicity about countercultural drug use brought LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs to the attention of mainstream America during the 1960s. Experimentation with psychedelic drugs during these years for recreational, rebellious, and religious reasons is well-known. What is less well-known is the role psychedelic drugs played in two spheres that have affected our views of madness and mental illness: the Beat writers of the 1950s and the scientific community researching biochemistry during the 1950s.

The Beat writers explored altered states of consciousness as a pathway to self-understanding and as a way to break into new realms of creativity. Although their use of psychedelic drugs was not frequent, their experiences did help shape their views. The Beats in turn forced society to re-evaluate its definition of madness. I will focus on William Burroughs' search for ayahuasca (also called yagé) beginning in 1951 and his experiences as he chronicled them in The Yage Letters and in his correspondence. Ayahuasca and heroin use prompted Burroughs to believe that schizophrenia must be caused by a chemical imbalance in the body similar to a drug-induced psychosis. Although Burroughs' theory did not make a cultural impact, his subsequent art and influence on Allen Ginsberg did.

Allen Ginsberg credits William and Joan Burroughs for almost single-handedly changing his "cold war mind" and I will discuss the relationship between Burroughs and Ginsberg, and Ginsberg's psychedelic experiences. His experiences provoked self-insight, guided his artistic muse as he wrote poetry, including "Howl," and led him to testify before the Senate subcommittee that was investigating LSD in 1966. Due in part to their intense drug experiences, both Burroughs and Ginsberg rejected society's requirement to conform, and pursued their own goals. Since the 1950s both of these writers have confronted society with the need to re-evaluate cultural definitions of deviance. These writers began a cultural move away from the idea that nonconformity is a form of madness.

During the 1950s the scientific community was also conducting experiments with LSD that led to a re-evaluation of madness. Previously, theorists believed schizophrenia to be a functional illness caused by environmental factors, such as family life, and characterized it as a poor adaptation to society. Although many psychologists and psychiatrists pondered physiological causes for schizophrenia, they did not find enough empirical evidence to create a solid theory. This evidence did not surface until the early 1950s. During these years, Dilworth Wayne Woolley, a biochemist at the Rockefeller Institute began to conduct experiments with a newly isolated neurotransmitter called serotonin and with LSD. I will explain the experiments conducted, which provided a basis for a biochemical theory of schizophrenia. The experiments with LSD were pivotal to discarding old ideas of the environmental etiology of schizophrenia, and adopting a model of mental disorder as an illness with a physiological component.

The scientific community at the Rockefeller Institute and the Beat writers did not intersect in any ways that have been documented, and the changes each wrought took very different paths. However, the core ideas of each arena echo each other and have led to a similar cultural change in our concept of mental illness. The Beat writers pointed out the cultural relativism of the definition of madness. The new biochemical theories of mental illness weakened Freudian theory and introduced a new paradigm of mind-body holism. We can now begin to understand how cultural definitions of mental disorder have functioned in the past and how they function in the present. Although seemingly we have moved toward a simple biochemical theory of mental illness and discarded previous culturally relative definitions, I will end with a brief discussion of the slipperiness of this assumption.

-- Kim Hewitt
Department of American Civilization
University of Texas at Austin

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