LSD at Princeton: New book blows minds

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A new book, “Blowing America’s Mind: A True Story of Princeton, CIA Mind Control, LSD and Zen,” documents the experiences of two University alumni who were subjects in LSD and hypnosis experiments at the now-defunct New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute’s Bureau of Research.

Under the research objectives of Dr. Humphry Osmond, who coined the word “psychedelic” and guided Aldous Huxley on the mescaline trip featured in “The Doors of Perception,” John Selby ’68 and Paul Jeffrey Davids ’69 were hypnotized and given LSD to explore altered states of consciousness.

In 1977, news broke of Project MKUltra, a program of experiments on human subjects undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency to develop drugs and procedures for interrogations and torture. The program, which started in the early 1950s and ended in 1973, used front organizations, such as colleges, hospitals, and prisons, to conduct the experiments while hiding their connection with the CIA.

“We knew we had volunteered for hypnosis and LSD research,” said Davids, “but the fact that it was being funded by the CIA and that the doctors we trusted … were working for the CIA — we didn’t know about [until] 10 years later, when MKUltra was exposed.”

On Aug. 3, 1977, former CIA Director Stansfield Turner confirmed that “86 institutions were involved” in “149 separate research projects.” Princeton and Columbia were two of these institutions, notified personally by the CIA in a set of letters admitting that Princeton students “had apparently been involved in a phase of CIA testing between 1953 and 1964.”

According to a 1977 article in the Los Angeles Times, CIA experimentation with LSD began “out of concern in the 1950s that the Russians and the Chinese had developed effective techniques in mind control,” resulting in fear that “American prisoners of war or American diplomats” would fall victim to these tactics.

A news release from the University Office of Communications on Sept. 1, 1977, provided further details about the experimentation, including that “CIA funds totaling $4,075 were paid in 1953 and 1958 for research by two individuals who were then affiliated with the University.” The release also refutes any claims that the “University as an institution was involved in this research.”

In email correspondences to former University President William Bowen on Aug. 31, 1977, former University Research Board chair Robert May confirmed that a chemistry department faculty member was paid $753 for “characterizing the alkaloids present in seeds of [Ipomoea] Sidaefolia Choisy” which are known to have “‘disorienting effects when ingested.’” May could not confirm “whether the chemistry was done in a Princeton laboratory or not.”

“I saw a notice up on the bulletin board in the [psychology] department when I was a junior,” said Selby. After completing a questionnaire and an interview with Dr. Bernard S. Aaronson, a hypnotist, Selby was signed off by the department to count his work at the Institute as course credit.

According to The New York Times, before the Institute existed, the first of three mental health facilities on the now-abandoned plot of land in Skillman, N.J., was open — the New Jersey State Village for Epileptics. This village was built in 1898 and was originally intended to be a “self-sustaining agrarian community” for epileptics to “live together in a wholesome environment” and “receive medical treatment” away from asylums and prisons.

In 1953, the village was turned into the New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, a research and treatment center catered towards “alcoholics, drug addicts, emotionally disturbed children[,] and people with cerebral palsy.”

The Institute was remodeled a final time in 1983 and renamed the North Princeton Developmental Center, focusing primarily on “developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy[,] and other neurological disorders.” The center closed permanently in 1998 and was completely demolished by 2012.

“I learned about the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute’s hypnosis research from a poster on a kiosk on Nassau Street,” explained Davids. “It made it out that it would be research that could help you lose your inhibitions. The implication was that it might even improve your sex life.”

According to Davids, the all-male campus culture placed “enormous pressure on how [the students] would meet women,” and students would “have to go to lengths to meet girls and maintain relationships.”

The Institute presented its research as a study of meditative states and altered awareness. In reality, research subjects experienced “some of that,” according to Davids, but the research took an unexpected turn.

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