The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain

Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkeley

This thesis examines the rearticulation of the drug-induced “psychedelic experience” in the age of cognitive neuroscience. It provides a historical and social scientific analysis of the social and cultural conditions of the most recent transformation of this historically singular form of limit experience along three axes: types of understanding, forms of normativity, and modes of relation to oneself and to others (Foucault). The implication of these social conditions in subjective experience takes a particular form in the case of hallucinogen ingestion: The psychopharmacological effects of these drugs are thought to be highly dependent on a subject’s internal state and expectations and the environment, in which the drugs are taken. The environment ethnographically described in this study is the meticulously regulated space of two neuropsychopharmacology laboratories in Zurich and San Diego that have played central roles in the so-called revival of hallucinogen research since around 1990. The thesis examines what Max Weber would have called the external conditions of this renaissance in the “Decade of the Brain” after political, regulatory, and scientific developments had led to the termination of most research on psychedelics in the course of the 1960s. The use of hallucinogen action as a model of psychosis is analyzed. With respect to hallucinogen-based animal models of schizophrenia the thesis discusses how humanness is dissolved and demarcated in biological psychiatry. In the Zurich lab, neuroscientists also attempted to “operationalize” and solve certain problems drawn from debates over the nature of consciousness in the philosophy of mind by turning them into experiments. Studying the transplantation of philosophy into the lab from a social scientific viewpoint raises a number of interesting questions concerning the social life of philosophical ideas and the neuroscientific suffusion of a problem space previously occupied by the humanities. Finally, this study investigates the internal conditions of hallucinogen research today: the scientific ethos underlying the work of a new generation of researchers fascinated by the psychedelic experience and their highly original strategies of integrating these experiences into their conduct of life. The inquiry uniquely highlights a number of anthropological implications of psychopharmacology, especially the connection between the human brain and subjective experience.