Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research Since the Decade of the Brain by Nicolas Langlitz is both an interesting anthropological study and a fascinating glimpse into two different labs studying the effects of psychedelics on living creatures. However, it is not just a glimpse into the labs themselves, but also into the cultural milieu that the labs are situated in, the personal beliefs, stories, and journeys of the researchers doing the work, and the broader historical lineage of the labs’ research.

This book is a wide-ranging tale of the scientific, political, and spiritual nature of psychedelic research and of the psychedelic movement itself. The depth of insights provided by Langlitz are unparalleled and incredibly useful to anyone working in this space.

Publisher Summary

“Neuropsychedelia examines the revival of psychedelic science since the Decade of the Brain. After the breakdown of this previously prospering area of psychopharmacology, and in the wake of clashes between counterculture and establishment in the late 1960s, a new generation of hallucinogen researchers used the hype around the neurosciences in the 1990s to bring psychedelics back into the mainstream of science and society. This book is based on anthropological fieldwork and philosophical reflections on life and work in two laboratories that have played key roles in this development: a human lab in Switzerland and an animal lab in California. It sheds light on the central transnational axis of the resurgence connecting American psychedelic culture with the home country of LSD. In the borderland of science and religion, Neuropsychedelia explores the tensions between the use of hallucinogens to model psychoses and to evoke spiritual experiences in laboratory settings. Its protagonists, including the anthropologist himself, struggle to find a place for the mystical under conditions of late-modern materialism.”

Summary Review of Neuropsychedelia

Author: Alex Criddle is an independent researcher, writer, and editor. He has a Masters in Philosophy, where his thesis was on the nature of healing in psychedelic experiences. He’s worked as a researcher at a clinic doing ketamine-assisted psychotherapy and as a psychedelic integration guide. His writing, psychedelic philosophy course, and contact information can be found at

Introduction – Neuropsychopharmacology as Spiritual Technology

  • The sociologist Nikolas Rose identified the period of the 1990s (the decade of the brain and the Human Genome Project) as a turning point where the neurochemical understanding of the mind began to dominate, a process that flattened the deep psychological space that had dominated before this time. The creation and expansion of SSRIs mark the transition from biology as fate to biology being subject to pharmacological interventions.
  • Physicians, philosophers, and ethicists saw the case histories surrounding Prozac as indicating a sense of spiritual emptiness and existential alienation. Psychiatrists treated this as a neurochemical problem, whereas they actually pointed to a mismatch between the ways people were living their lives and the structures of meaning that told them how to do so.
  • In the early 2000s, this cultural critique was shared by Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, two members of the United States’ Council on Bioethics. Each frequently referenced Aldous Huxley‘s dystopian work Brave New World and his utopian work Island. Huxley’s Island was responding to a similar diagnosis as Kass and Fukuyama were responding to.
  • In the 1960s, Huxley’s work became central to the countercultural movement, and central elements of the hippies’ social critiques were also in the discourse of the more conservative bioethicists like Kass and Fukuyama. However, their solutions were polar opposites. Kass saw guarding the limits of humanness against biotechnological transgression as the solution, while the hippies saw using mind-expanding drugs as the salvation.
  • The use of hallucinogens has been studied in religious settings by anthropologists since the late 19th century, and some suggest the ritual setting and cosmological worldview prevent the disruptive effects these drugs have on American and European youth. The experience and ritual guided the individual toward specific cultural goals.
  • The first Euro-Americans tried peyote in a laboratory in the late 19th century, but anthropologists such as James Mooney noted that white subjects reported different experiences than the Native Americans. They attributed this to the culture noting that the Westerners were scared of the drug whereas the Natives had a sense of pleasant anticipation. This is in contrast to the perennial philosophy that informs psychedelia.
  • At first glance, the process of modernity–transitioning from religion to science–informs the current psychedelic revival. However, Langlitz will argue that the neuroscientific revitalisation of psychedelics did not purge the drugs from their mystical connotations. The spiritual experiences are the moral motor of the revival.
  • Langlitz suggests that this book can be read as a contribution to the ethnographic archive documenting humanity and how the naturalist and supernaturalist logoi of anthropos has given rise to a new form he calls “mystic materialism.”

Chapter 1 – Psychedelic Revival

  • Hallucinogens became an object of scientific investigation in the 19th century. The French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours brought hashish back from a trip to the Orient. He used this in the 1840s to model and treat mental illnesses.
  • Peyote began to spread in use among Native Americans in the latter half of the 19th century. This led researchers, including Silas Weir Mitchell and Henry Havelock Ellis, to study the effects of it. Through self-experiments, Arthur Heffter, a German chemist, identified and isolated mescaline as the active principle of peyote in 1897. In the 1820s, Ernst Spath figured out how to synthesize it.
  • Albert Hofmann discovered LSD in 1943 of course and in the 40s and 50s, it was used to model and treat mental illness.
  • In the 1960s, Timothy Leary became the prophet of the pharmacologically revitalized religious movement calling these drugs cures for all of society’s problems.
  • This optimism resonated with the high hopes inspired by the psychopharmacological revolution. Just 10-20 years prior, drugs were hardly accepted as a remedy for mental disorders. But in the 1950s, Americans became convinced no illness was beyond the capacity of pharmaceutical science.
  • In the 1970s, Gerald Klerman coined the phrase “pharmacological Calvinism” which, like its namesake, rejected the use of drugs for pleasure, but criticized the under-prescription of drugs by physicians to aid in “good works”, the Protestant industrious route to salvation.  This opposition between pharmacological Calvinism and psychedelic pharmacospirituality mirrors Max Weber’s distinction between asceticism and mysticism. Asceticism makes salvation a worldly business, while mysticism makes working life an obstacle. Thus this drug mysticism was propped up in opposition to capitalism.
  • However, this movement was derailed as these substances were made illegal and the research was drastically decreased until the more recent revival.
  • The Heffter Research Institute, founded in 1993, worked towards the goal of transforming Western culture by its own means–the dispassionate approach of mainstream science.
  • The stance of researchers shifted from pitting counter-culture vs. culture to harmonizing the drug mysticism with one’s active citizenship via Rick Doblin‘s political spirituality.
  • In contemporary neurotheology, the experience-based spirituality, itself a shift that occurred in Protestantism over the past 50 years, meets cognitive neuroscience. Mysticism is narrowed to peak experiences and isolated neural events, which strips it of its cultural difference and antagonistic nature.
  • Doblin was worried a shifting political climate might tear down everything they’d worked for so they adopted an international approach, establishing research foundations in multiple countries.

Chapter 2 – Swiss Psilocybin and US Dollars

  • Throughout the early-to-mid 1900s, Switzerland had “counter-culture” type groups, notably Ascona, a village that advocated anarchy and pacifism, free love, reaching towards one’s full potential, and a return to nature.
  • In 1912, the Hague Convention passed the first international drug policy treaty. Switzerland refused to enter this convention until 1925, largely because Switzerland was one of the world’s biggest suppliers of heroin. However, due to international pressures, the Swiss capitulated and signed in 1925. They also signed the UN Narcotic Drugs convention in 1961 and the Convention on Psychotropic substances in 1971. The surrender of Swiss neutrality  on drugs was very reluctantly given. The Swiss historian Jakob Tanner noted that the power of the US to define what is and what is not a drug has been crucial. He suggested that the Swiss likely would not have banned opiates.
  • During the 1980s it was becoming clear the American drug war was failing as Americans were consuming more cocaine than ever before. While the US stepped up its drug interdiction efforts (which of course failed) the Swiss had the Federal Office of Public Health begin giving heroin to addicts under medical supervision. They also began approving the research of drugs, particularly psychedelics, while the rest of the UN criticized them.
  • Also during this time, the Swiss drug policy shifted from problematization of drug use and the repression of inebriation and addiction to fostering the health and safety of its users. They made the black market transparent and tried to reduce its harm. They created mobile labs that allowed party-goers to test the quality and dosage of their black-market substances. Products of poor quality were quickly abandoned leading to higher quality substances. And instead of simply developing tools to detect the presence of a drug, utilized by the US, the Swiss were developing in depth knowledge of the substances, how to apply them, their effects, and adverse reactions.
  • Dozens of Americans with many millions of dollars of money, mostly made in Silicon Valley, were interested in funding research of psychedelic substances. In part, because of the United States’ stance on drugs, the money was funneled to researchers in Switzerland studying the substances.
  • Langlitz cites to many such cases of transnational flows of money from more restrictive to more permissive regulatory governments for research.

Chapter 3 – The Varieties of Psychedelic Lab Experience

  • Langlitz was an experimental subject in Franz Vollenweider‘s Neuropsychopharmacology and Brain Imaging Laboratory in Zurich beginning in 2005. Vollenweider was conducting research using psilocybin.
  • Rael Cahn, then a doctoral researcher, was running the study. He did his PhD at UCSD but was interested in altered states of consciousness, something he couldn’t study in animals or in the US so he went to Switzerland. His case is common: an interest in the healing power of psychedelics and meditation inspired him to enter medical school and was hoping to contribute to the development of integrative medicine. But in the laboratory he found tensions between the vocation and the norms and the requirements structuring the field of cognitive neuroscience.
  • Langlitz then describes his experiences on psilocybin in the experiment before turning to the influences on Vollenweider and the lab he was affiliated with. Vollenweider met Adolf Dittrich in Jules Angst’s lab. Dittrich was a psychological methodologist whose forte was statistics. Dittrich was interested in testing whether or not all altered states of consciousness had a common denominator independent of who they were induced. He differentiated the internal states into three interdependent dimensions/subscales: oceanic boundlessness, dread of ego dissolution, and visionary reconstruction. These mapped onto Aldous Huxley’s three dimensions: heaven, hell, and visions. Huxley and Dittrich’s foundation was trying to identify this archetypal core; Dittrich’s tool was through the means of quantitative psychology.
  • Daston and Galison’s book Objectivity traces the rise of objectivity as an epistemic virtue in the 19th century. This objectivity called for the minimization of the scientific self with self-experimentation as suspect and distorted. Objectivity came from a deep-seated distrust of the subjective and how it might “defile” an impartial perspective on the world. Along these lines, one general concern surrounding psychedelic research was whether drug experiences distorted the researchers’ scientificity and whether this scientificity distorted the researchers’ experiences. This was an object of concern and debate among these labs as they were designing studies.
  • Langlitz then contrasts pharmacologist Felix Hasler’s view that the human psyche is fundamentally manipulable and depends entirely on brain chemistry with the Peruvian and Siberian shamans’ view not that their whole being depended on brain chemistry but rather communication with the spirits of their ancestors. This leads Marlene Dobkin de Rios to speak of the “cultural patterning of hallucinatory experiences.” Langlitz then invokes Ian Hacking’s historical ontology suggesting that this looping effect makes the hallucinogenic experience a human kind.
  • In the late 1950s, the anthropologist Anthony Wallace suggested, after noticing the different drug responses between white and Native American test subjects, that we needed culture-controlled trials (in the broad sense including sociocultural background, personality, etc.). As you might have guessed, these trials never caught on and placebo-controlled studies became the gold standard.
  • Langlitz cites an email from researcher Erich Studerus questioning the weight that set and setting play in the effects of psychedelics which challenges the constructivist accounts of hallucinogen action. Studerus’ colleague, Boris Quednow, acknowledged the role of set and setting as well-known from placebo effects but suggested both factors were mere confounding variables. He noted just how much expectation plays into the efficacy of antidepressants which to a psychopharmacologist is merely a basic noise effect that needs to be surpassed while to the pharmacologist these noises must be minimized or controlled. Quednow’s account seeks to find the ratio of nature and culture in humanity. If a phenomenon is more natural then it must be less cultural and vice versa.
  • The problem of being unable to stabilize the effects of psychotropic drugs under experimental conditions has haunted pharmacopsychology since it’s inception but reached its pinnacle in psychedelic research. The wide range of hallucinatory experiences and cultural contexts poses a challenge to both pharmacologicalism (assuming strong drugs always have the same predictable effects) and social constructivism. It also poses a challenge to the clinical applications of these substances.
  • One of the great challenges in life sciences is to devise methods that no not aim at reduction but measure up to the complexity of life itself. The next chapter looks at how contemporary model psychosis research can be seen as a response to this problem.
  • Following Henri Bergson, William James, and C. D. Broard, Aldous Huxley thought of the brain as an organ of filtration. Langlitz notes that the fact that 21st century hallucinogen researchers still employ a filter paradigm is remarkable considering neuroscience emphasizes that the brain constructs the image of the world rather than receiving it. The central nervous system is eliminative, not productive. It eliminates the spiritual dimension of reality in normal waking states. The problem with psychosis then is not that it makes the subject lose touch with external reality, instead they are overwhelmed by the expansiveness of inner/outer reality and it’s (spiritual) significance.
  • Contemporary model psychosis research has adopted and secularized this filter paradigm.

Chapter 4 – Enacting Experimental Psychoses

  • By the end of the 18th century researchers were already using drugs to try to mimic mental disorders using things like wolfsbane, camphor, and opium. In the late 1830s the French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours heard an Egyptian talking about his encounter with the djinn, concluding the encounter was caused by hashish. He tried the drug himself and began to experiment with it on himself and others in a Paris salon. The results led him to conclude hashish allowed the researchers to experience what a mental disorder was like for themselves.
  • In 1921, the German psychiatrist Kurt Beringer adopted Moreau’s approach using mescaline instead of hashish. Beringer developed a second-order model of psychosis by asking his subjects to write down their hallucinatory experiences and abstracting from that what the psychotic experience was like.
  • By the 1950s and beyond, many researchers began demarcating between the experience of psychosis and the experience of mental illness. Their models were not built on the phenomenological analysis that Beringer et al. had attempted to create, rather they were neuropharmacological models.
  • John Gaddum in 1954 suggested the serotonin deficit hypothesis of schizophrenia, which was quickly replaced with the dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia in the 60s. In the 70s, during the height of the dopamine hypothesis research the hallucinogen-induced states as models of schizophrenia stopped making sense. Yet, just two decades later, the hallucinogen-induced states model began making a comeback.
  • This was in part due to the discussion of the nature of representation within the philosophy of science and psychiatry. Sidney Cohen, Mark Geyer, and Manfred Spitzer all argued that models are not true or false, instead they are useful or not, and the psychedelic model of schizophrenia was useful.

Chapter 5 – Between Animality and Divinity

  • An experimental measure that researchers invented called prepulse inhibition (PPI) became a widespread paradigm translating Huxley’s mysticism into model psychosis research.
  • PPI describes the following phenomenon: Sudden and intense sensory stimuli trigger a startle effect (e.g. blinking and bodily jerking). If a weak, non-startling stimulus (a low noise–prepulse) precedes the stimulus (a loud noise–pulse), it inhibits the startle response.
  • This mechanism was impaired in schizophrenics and in rats treated with hallucinations. However Gouzoulis-Mayfrank found in 1998 that humans treated with psilocybin had increased PPI. Hallucinogens  became an interesting tool to modulate the PPI.
  • In the 1960s, Mark Geyer researched the stimulus and habituation effect of psychedelics on animals and humans. They found that pretreatment with LSD impaired the animals’ habituation to repeatedly administered startle stimuli. They also showed that antipsychotic drugs could normalize PPI after it had been disrupted by hallucinogens giving rise to the hope that this could be a drug screening mechanism for antipsychotics.
  • Langlitz then details the struggles Mark Geyer and other researchers’ labs had with animal rights activists and the sacrifice of living, sentient beings for the “higher” cause of scientific knowledge and medical progress. He details the effects on those scientists in the labs he worked with.
  • He then discusses the problems with using rats as a model for humans, noting that other labs also showed that drugs such as MDMA and psilocybin decreased PPI in rats but increased it in humans.

Chapter 6 – Mystic Materialism

  • One of the reasons Langlitz decided to do fieldwork on brain research facilities was to see how people conducted their lives in light of scientific knowledge. During the neuroscience boom of the 80s and 90s, many philosophers and scientists (e.g. Patricia Churchland) predicted a cultural revolution, no longer talking about subjective experience would be done away with in favour of talk of the brain and objectivist vocabulary.
  • For this purpose, Langlitz thought hallucinogen researchers who had experienced the object of their investigation first-hand would be a perfect study. It seems that despite what the philosophers and scientists predicted, there wasn’t an entire existential transformation of the individual lives of the researchers Langlitz worked with. Some did take on the hard materialist approach, and the internalization of the neuroscientific knowledge gained provided a particular, negative orientation towards one’s conduct in life among a few of the researchers.
  • In some accounts Langlitz presents, mysticism and materialism are presented as mutually exclusive, but, he argues, this methodological separation doesn’t necessarily imply or require a dualistic ontology. Monistic convictions can be compatible with some kinds of mysticism. And the development of science from the Renaissance through the present times has been replete with nature mystics, which are now being replaced by biomystics, people who see the life sciences as a whole in quasi-mystical terms.
  • Langlitz then presents the story of the Swiss physician Honza Samotar and his explorations with psychedelic substances in pursuit of knowledge. Samotar learned to embrace good and bad trips alike as he experimented with ingesting new combinations of highly potent drugs nearly to the point of self-destruction in the pursuit of knowledge. This borders on the mystical self-annihilation which the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has spoken of. He suggests the modern individual’s self-experimentations that test up to the limits of self-destruction resemble the idea of mystical self-annihilation that spread during the Middle Ages.
  • What distinguishes Samotar’s mysticism of biology from the biology of the mystical is that the spiritual focal point is not the extraordinary mental states, but rather the ordinary existence to which you return to. The true mystical is the baseline state you always return back to.
  • The failure of brain research’s ability to solve the big philosophical questions didn’t lead Franz Vollenweider to abandon science in favour of psychedelic piety or to a scientific materialism. Instead, he developed an outlook of partial detachment, letting go of the quest for epistemological, ontological, or theological foundations.

Conclusion – Fieldwork in Perennial Philosophy

  • Despite being an anthropological work, the beginning point of the book was not an anthropological problem but rather one of Langlitz’s experiences: the wonder, shame, and confusion he felt when he took LSD and the later sense of inner peace and ontological security it gave him.
  • In the 1980s, the perennialist heritage of the West came under scrutiny and the West began to anthropologize itself. The universalist conception of religion began to be called into question as was Aldous Huxley. However, Huxley’s approach was in line with the epistemological tradition of eclecticism (one that is both ancient and modern). One of the ancient texts dealing with such a tradition is Diogenes’ work Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers which appears to be ill-suited to modern knowledge practices relying on the grand narrative of the Scientific Revolution.
  • Langlitz suggests it is this epistemological modernism that fills the philosophers of mind such as Patricia Churchland and Thomas Metzinger with contempt for the continental philosophical texts. However the rise in science has coevolved with the rise of modern eclecticism, the method of inquiry for perennial philosophers. And it is this method of inquiry that was the fieldwork of this book.