The Doors of Perception

The publication of The Doors of Perception[1] by Aldous Huxley in 1954 marks a useful dividing line in Western thought on entheogens. Before its publication most scientists thought psychedelic drugs as scientific curiosities. Their ability to alter the mind in powerful ways certainly seemed to argue for some possible utility, but not enough was known about them, or the brain for that matter, to understand how to use them or what they might be good for. Since they created in those who took them indications of mental illness, many certainly thought their chemistry could provide potential leads to the causes and cures for insanity. Others they might be useful for scientists and therapists to understand mental illness from the inside, so to speak. Still others thought seemingly that driving the insane a little more insane with psychedelic drugs might be useful for curing some forms of mental illness. Few people took the experience to be enlightening or valuable by itself. Few wanted to approach the experience on its own terms. Fewer still thought the experience could provide actual insight. All of this changed after Huxley’s Doors. While the word “psychedelic” wasn’t coined by Huxley’s collaborator, Humphry Osmond, for several more years, the publication of Doors changed the terms of the arguments.

Doors was Huxley’s personal account of a day in May 1953, when he deliberately ingested mescaline with Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist, as his guide. His experience with its psycho-tourist bent created a prototype for how hallucinogens would be experienced in succeeding decades by Western intelligentsia. His activities of the day – gazing at art prints, listening to music, visiting the garden – became de rigueur activities for many during an LSD trip in the following decades. His theory of how psychedelics worked, borrowed in part from Bergson, was remarkably prescient. When he wrote that the psychedelic “lowers the efficiency of the brain as an instrument for focusing the mind on the problems of life”, he foreshadowed modern neuroscientific theories.  With Huxley was born the idea that ingestion of these drugs could be something more than degenerate activities of primitive and prescientific peoples, that it could provide real insight into reality with potential to awaken artistic and mystical insight.

Modern scientific interest in psychedelics began in 1897 when Arthur Heffter, a German chemist, isolated mescaline from the peyote cactus.[2] Initially interest in mescaline was primarily for its perceived ability to generate mental states like those of schizophrenia and other psychopathologies. By 1913 physicians were injecting themselves and volunteers with mescaline and experiencing the kaleidoscopic images and hallucinations firsthand. While simple curiosity may have played a part in the experimentation, the expressed hope was to gain insight into mental illness by undertaking an experience like it themselves. Eventually the idea occurred to some that administering a psychotomimetic substance to someone who was already mentally ill might be beneficial. The discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1943, its subsequent free availability to psychiatrists, coupled with increasing interest in somatic paradigms for mental illness fueled growth in research. By the early 1950’s there were more than a hundred studies on the effects of psychedelics. Most studies, using mescaline or LSD, with severely ill psychiatric patients showed mixed results with a few patients improving, many unchanged, and some worsening. Despite the disappointing results, experimentation continued. There remained the argument that physicians and psychiatrists might gain some understanding of their own patients from their experimentation.

In this environment, Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist, began working with John Smythies at St. George’s Hospital, London. Noticing the similarity in chemical structure between mescaline and adrenaline, they hypothesized that schizophrenia might be the result of an abnormal metabolism of adrenaline that resulted in a chemical which might produce effects like mescaline. Their attention turned to adrenochrome which is an oxidation product of adrenaline that also showed indications in some small studies of triggering psychotic like reactions.

Osmond was already something of maverick. He brought to this effort a growing skepticism of the Freudian approach to severe mental illness employed in psychiatric hospitals at the time. Somewhat incongruently for someone looking for a chemical explanation for psychosis, Osmond also had a dislike for materialism and an interest in parapsychological research. Feeling constrained in his research in England, Osmond took a position at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. Believing the effects of mescaline and LSD to resemble those of delirium tremens, Osmond began to give LSD to alcoholics. The results were more positive than the studies with those with severe pathologies.

Huxley, growing up as a man of letters in a privileged family in England, by this time had already evolved from the author primarily known for satiric works to someone enthralled with the ideas of mysticism and ecstatic experience. Before Osmond came to his attention, as early as 1939 Huxley became interested in Eastern religions. As a student of Swami Prabhavananda, he learned meditation practices. His 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy was inspired by a belief in a universal core to all religions. The book consisted by brief sections from religious works from Eastern and Western traditions. It asserted not only a highest common factor to all religions but that a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine was possible for the mystic.

Huxley wrote Osmond when he noticed Osmond’s contribution to an article in the Hibbert Journal on the state of psychological medicine.[3] Osmond was familiar with Huxley’s work and had a carried a copy of Huxley’s Texts and Pretexts with him during the war. Hoffman wrote back to “Mr. Huxley” with an enclosed copy of his own “mescal experience” and volunteered additional information on some parapsychological experiments he had done while in the state that he had left out of his account. The experiments had convinced Hoffman that the psychedelic state could be a passport to some wider expanse beyond our ordinary, culture bound experience. Hoffman offered to call on Huxley during his visit to the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Los Angeles in May. While not explicitly offering mescaline to Huxley, Hoffman did urge that Huxley take certain precautions, if he decided to try the drug, as well as make a good record of his experiences so they could be useful for his research purposes.

Huxley wrote back already offering up the Bergsonian model to explain the actions of psychedelics. He wrote: “The brain with its associated normal self, acts as a utilitarian device for limiting and making selections from, the enormous possible world of consciousness, and for canalizing experience into biologically profitable channels”. Huxley’s belief was that psychedelics might temporarily, at least, free the mind from its utilitarian bent to enable a vision of wider reality. His hope was there might be some way of integrating the “intimations of immortality” available through psychedelic experience with the practical requirements of biological survival. In this letter, Huxley, not typically enthusiastic about house guests, offered Hoffman a bed and bath for the visit to Los Angeles. Hoffman accepted the invitation. Huxley wrote back later with some logistics and a request that Osmond bring the drug with him because it would be difficult to obtain the drug soon enough for the visit through his La Roche supplier.

Osmond agreed to bring the drug, but he also encouraged Huxley to have on hand a variety of counter agents in case the trip went bad, and Huxley needed to be brought down. Osmond later revealed his apprehension at providing Huxley with mescaline. The last thing he wanted was to be the doctor who drove the distinguished Huxley to insanity.

In the late morning of May 4, 1953, Osmond swirled a reported 400 milligrams of mescaline in a glass of water and Huxley consumed it. While mescaline is a gentler, less visual drug than other psychedelics, the dosage, regarded as strong by usual standards, might typically be expected to render its subject unable to function normally. Huxley’s experience, which the Nicholas Murray biography describes as “slow to take effect”, seems to have been somewhat lighter. Of course, psychedelics, most drugs for that matter, have a nuanced effect. Timothy Leary came up with his well-known “set and setting” explanation for the variability of psychedelic effects not many years later. “Set” is the person, their beliefs, expectations, and mindset for the day. “Setting” is the environment where the experience takes place itself. Consuming a psychedelic in hospital surrounded by white lab coats might be expected to produce different results than consuming it on a sunny, blue-sky day in the garden. Huxley for his part likely had sky-high expectations but he was also a newcomer to the experience. Some people tend to have a natural psychedelic resistance to effects, perhaps for peculiarities of physiology or psychological makeup. Others require an initially high threshold dose for a break-through experience after which they can experience strong effects with much lighter doses. Another possibility for the “slow effect” is that Osmond mismeasured either by accident or design and Huxley was given a lighter dose.

The account which follows in Doors is Huxley’s slightly extravagant descriptions of his perceptions interspersed with philosophical reflections. A naïve reader might suppose that the reflections to be thoughts occurring spontaneously to Huxley during the experience, like insights arriving from the other side of veil pulled back by the drug. An hour and a half into the experience, Huxley stares at a flower arrangement. He describes it as “seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence”. Shortly, thereafter, follows discussion of Meister Eckhart, Plato, The Beatific Vision, and the Dharma-Body. That Huxley had a considerably enhanced visual experience of the flowers of the arrangement there is likely little doubt. That the vision itself of the flowers led him to the philosophical revelations he writes about might be somewhat less likely. The concepts and revelations were all already known to Huxley well before the experience. He had spent at least part of his career writing on them. The experience by itself probably led to no new ideas for Huxley but a broad confirmation of his own mystical inclinations developed from such works.

Later Hoffman suggests a walk in the garden. “It was inexpressibly wonderful, wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying,” Huxley writes. Suddenly the thought of madness occurs to him. Quickly it is dismissed with the thought that “most takers of mescalin experience only the heavenly part of schizophrenia”. So, yes, the experience is like madness but only the good parts. Still, as the experience intensifies, Huxley’s unease grows. Now it is not unease at possible madness but instead an anxiety about reaching too far, a terror of coming “face to face with some manifestation of the Mysterium tremendum”- “a burning brightness of unmitigated reality”. It is the Divine Light of Jakob Boehme. It the Clear Light of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Huxley speculates that perhaps the truly mad, who must be unprepared for the enormity of Reality, could have a handbook read to them by their psychiatrist in the manner of the Tibetan handbook to calm their confusion. Hoffman presumably steers Huxley away from the garden and his disturbing thoughts.

Somewhere during the day Huxley fits in a trip to the World’s Largest Drug Store, as it was known at the time, where Huxley uses his new “eyes” to examine the Bakelite dishes and art books. Huxley rounds out the day with a large meal, a ride in the car, and a view from the hills of brick chimneys and glowing green roofs in the sunshine that appear like “fragments of the New Jerusalem” seen by the eyes of Huxley that now had become like those of an artist. The artist whose eyes he held was Guardi whose stucco was “charged with all the meaning and mystery of existence”.

Doors was a book that probably could only have been written by someone like Huxley. Huxley suffered from severe vision problems and may have been especially drawn to the visual splendors of the experience. More importantly he had taken a psychedelic only once at the time of its writing. Much of the account is giddiness at the visual transformations and over confidence in the inherent goodness of the drug and its revelations. With greater experience with the drugs comes a certain routine regularity to colors and distortions and the usually unwanted possibility of plumbing the darker depths of the experience. 

Everything is more intense – colors, feelings, meaning, and import – with the experience. Hoffman years later would write: “To fathom Hell or go angelic, just take a pinch of PSYCHEDELIC”, thereby initiating a rebranding of the drugs as aids for revealing reality rather than hiding or distorting it.  Huxley had previously suggested his own invented word “phanerothyme”, meaning “spiritedness”: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme”. While the term “psychedelic” stuck, the objective was to remove the stigma of “psychotomimetic” and “hallucinogen”, which suggested nothing useful or scientific.  “Psychedelic”, meaning “mind manifesting”, suggested instead a place for the mystical and the parapsychological in science while it remained somewhat neutral on many big issues. It could be interpreted in a more “neurosciency” way for those who clung to materialistic approaches.

The psychedelic movement was underway. Scientists, whether they agreed with Huxley and Osmond or not on the mystical and philosophical importance of the drugs, continued to experiment with them mainly looking for psychotherapeutic results. By 1960, Sidney Cohen surveyed over forty researchers on the protocols and results primarily of LSD to conclude that it was safe when given to a selected healthy group of individuals with the proper precautions. Unfortunately, the genie was out of the lamp. The black market and non-medical use of the drugs was growing and the same Cohen by 1962 had shifted to warning about the dangers of the drugs taken in unapproved settings.

Some reactions to Doors probably surprised Huxley who might have overlooked the inadvertent fallout of the democratization of enlightenment. If taking 400 milligrams of mescaline can produce an instant viewing of the Dharma body itself, what becomes of the payoff for spiritual practice or the value of any study of the mystical literature. For the most part, both become redundant. Most people with any investment in the mystical would find a problem with that. Several writers, including Huxley’s teacher Swami Prabhavananda himself, criticized the approach of the book and said that the experience and its insights were not the same as the those derived from legitimate mysticism. Of course, nobody knew exactly democratic “enlightenment” would become in the next decade.

Huxley views of the usage of psychedelics also evolved while never losing faith in their ultimate value. Later he decided the usage of psychedelics perhaps should be restricted only to those with serious intent. His understanding of the potential for negative experiences grew over time. Whereas, as in Doors, he believed bad trips were all but impossible for anyone in normal mental and physical health. By the time of Huxley’s writing of Heaven and Hell, he was beginning to warn of dangers and the need for precaution.

The publication of The Doors of Perception[i] by Aldous Huxley in 1954 was a watershed moment in Western thought. For the first time since Ancient Greece, an intellectual in the Western tradition took seriously the idea that a substance producing a delirium could provide significant insight on mind, life, and reality. It was also a call to take seriously madness and what was then regarded as abnormal even pathological. Huxley before others was the one who crystallized the scattered observations and thoughts from psychology and anthropology into a philosophical and spiritual view of psychedelics. That a person from British intellectual aristocracy would venture into such waters was significant. Huxley with his less well-known collaborator, Humphry Osmond, created the vocabulary and context for understanding psychedelics in the contemporary Western scientific and philosophical framework.

[1] Huxley, A. (2004). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. 1954, 1956. Fwd. JG.

[2] Rucker, J. J., Iliff, J., & Nutt, D. J. (2018). Psychiatry & the psychedelic drugs. Past, present & future. Neuropharmacology142, 200-218.

[3] Information and quotes from letters that follow from: Bisbee, C. C., Bisbee, P., Dyck, E., & Patrick, S. S. J. S. S. (Eds.). (2018). Psychedelic Prophets: The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond (Vol. 48). McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

[i] (Huxley, 2009 (original 1954))

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Psychedelics, Transhumanism. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Doors of Perception

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I’ve never read Doors but Huxley’s Brave New World (which features the drug soma) blew me away. So do his essays in Brave New World Revisited. He was very much ahead of his time. His views are even more prescient now.

    Never done acid, but I’ve done shrooms and mescaline. Always had a blast. My mind fascinates me, and watching it be altered was very interesting. Timothy Leary put kind of a stink on the research of hallucinogens, and it stalled for decades. We’re once again waking up to the possibilities of these natural compounds. For a good modern take, try How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • James Cross says:

      I’ve read Pollan and it somewhat irritated me. Maybe more on that at some other time.

      I have in plans another piece on Leary. If I think one reader might be interested, I might move ahead with those plans sooner rather than later. 🙂


      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Don’t do it on my account. I was never particularly into Leary.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          What’s somewhat weird about Leary compared to Huxley is that Leary is a materialist. In a sense, it seems he felt it is actually possible to worship matter (or the wave matrices in quote below).

          “The fact of the matter is that all apparent forms of matter and body are momentary clusters of energy. We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen. This realization directly experienced can be delightful. You suddenly wake up from the delusion of separate form and hook up to the cosmic dance. Consciousness slides along the wave matrices, silently at the speed of light”

          Some other random quotes:

          “The universe is an intelligence test.”
          “The most important thing you do in your life is to die.”
          “Any reality is an opinion-we make up our own reality”
          “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition”
          ― Timothy Leary


        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          He took the 1960s a little too much to heart. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          Leary tends to draw strong reactions either way. Some, maybe for good reason, think he more than any other sabotaged the possibilities for scientific research on psychedelics. He had a role in my view but, as I wrote, the genie was out of the lamp, so eventually usage was going to spread. He might have sped things up but probably didn’t single-handedly cause all the problems. There was a lot else going on at the time. – a cold and hot war, civil rights, and a lot of baby boomers coming of age.


        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          Usage, sure, but Leary was a clinical psychologist at Harvard University so his voice had some weight. And some of the experiments he did at Harvard were questionable. I think that’s where most of the stink came from. (That’s how it seemed at the time, anyway. I’m afraid my strong reaction to Leary was and is, “Meh, whatever.” 😃)

          Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          Honestly not much I can disagree with in what you write.

          Psychedelic research isn’t particularly easy to do. It’s almost impossible to have any sort of double blind control group because the effects of the real drug are so obvious. Measuring any sort of result in any psychological experiment is difficult anyway. Aside from that, it isn’t totally clear even to me whether he was interested all that much in the research or whether he was more interested in evangelizing the drug.

          What has always interested me was his weird hybrid of worldview that somehow manages to blend the scientific and materialistic with the mystical. Most of the leading scientists and philosophers that are interested in the topic seem to come down on one side or the other. Huxley and probably Osmond too were clearly in the mystical side. McKenna, Pinchbeck, and Kastrup are the same. On the other side are usually hard-core neuroscientists or therapists who are looking for a tool to help people.


        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          Heh, yeah, hard to do double-blind with potent hallucinogens. I suppose the tack has to be as with other extreme forms of therapy, seeing if it seems to help compared to those getting no or other forms.

          I’ve been struck by the link to spirituality that seems common. Many feel it as a mystical connection to reality. Kinda depends on one’s mindset and core beliefs — these experiences are all products of the mind, so their content depends a lot on where one starts. Set and setting address that very thing.

          Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          That is the sort of comparison that is usually done – comparing LSD usually with therapy to just therapy or no intervention. But then, of course, we already have the observer bias and expectations probably influencing results.

          Of course, a big part of my argument about Huxley is that much of his experience or his interpretation of the experience was already set by what he brought to the experience.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        I just finished that Pollan book and rather liked it. What irritated you about it?

        I liked his mostly level-headed approach, and (especially after reading the book) I very much agree with the guy who said that these drugs have a lot of fool’s gold but also real gold. The accounts of efficacy with regard to alcoholism, nicotine addiction, and depression, are quite striking. It seems especially effective for addiction.

        Liked by 1 person

        • James Cross says:

          Pollan to me seemed a little too driven to take an assortment of drugs without any good reason other than he wanted to write a book about them. I also haven’t liked the more psychotherapeutic approach he has expressed elsewhere. I don’t think we should all be compelled to go to a therapist to access the drugs.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Wyrd Smythe says:

          I don’t understand. Are faulting him for writing the book or for wanting to experience subjectively the topic of the intended book? If you wanted to write a book about trains, wouldn’t you want to ride as many as possible yourself?

          I do agree about therapeutic access only (although in this society that may be the only way it’ll ever work). That, apparently, is even something of a debate amongst proponents.


  2. BigBanyan says:

    Hi James, thanks for a fascinating post. Two (slightly random) thoughts: Huxley’s final novel, Island (a kind of Mahayana+Tantric utopia) has a chapter in which young adults meditate before a Shiva statue after consuming some drug; quite a lush description, and a very different attitude than BNW. Second, if I remember right, Huxley, as he lay dying, deliberately consumed small doses of lsd (this is in a biography I read ages ago by Sybil Bedford I think. I’ve never found it since in print). Just trivia. Thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Waves and Dimensions | Broad Speculations

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