Historian Benjamin Breen explores the troubled birth of psychedelic science in acclaimed new book, Tripping On Utopia. 

Associate Professor Of History Benjamin Breen

Famed anthropologist Margaret Mead and her third husband Gregory Bateson believed that LSD and other psychedelic substances could enlighten the world and help save humanity from nuclear conflagration during the Cold War. 

But their dreams about the potentials of psychedelic research collided with seamier realities, including unethical government testing of these substances on unwitting humans, writes University of California, Santa Cruz Associate Professor of History Benjamin Breen in his acclaimed new book Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, The Cold War, and The Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science (Grand Central Publishing.)

Breen is also the author of The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade, winner of the 2021 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. 

Tripping On Utopia delves deeply into the early utopianism of psychedelics researchers including Mead and Bateson, who had strong, idealistic beliefs in the power of altered states of consciousness to help humanity heal after the trauma of World War II. 

But the book also goes into detail about how easily such dreams can be coopted for dubious purposes. Breen shares the bizarre story of American physician John C. Lilly’s widely publicized dosing of dolphins - and himself - with LSD in a NASA-funded experiment into whether dolphins could be induced to communicate with humans. 

Breen also describes the widely reviled CIA-funded and administered MKULTRA program, which tested psychedelics and other substances on unsuspecting participants to test enhanced interrogation techniques during the Cold War. The program, which started in the early 1950s, was kept a secret until 1975. 

Breen’s canny combination of startling details and rigorous archival research, along with the current revived interest in the therapeutic potentials of psychedelics, has made Tripping On Utopia a hot new nonfiction title. 

The newly released book is getting the kind of massive publicity and buzz that eludes most nonfiction authors. 

A detailed laudatory New York Times review went live this week, along with Breen’s recent chat with Terry Gross– arguably the world’s most famous living radio interviewer – on her NPR show, “Fresh Air.”

Rather than embark on a barnstorming book tour, Breen will stick close to home. “I'm actually going to go on paternity leave pretty soon,” Breen said. “And so I'm honestly just switching gears to putting together a crib and organizing the diaper changing station.”

Still, he’s excited about the chance to reach a wide audience with a book that is heavy on research and interviews, and arose, in part, from his experiences as a principle Investigator of the 2019-2020 THI research cluster Drug Histories and Futures

“Often, we (academics) are not really trained or oriented towards speaking to the general public and I think it's a real privilege and honor to do it,” said Breen, who honed his ability to reach a non-academic audience during a funny, irreverent, and sometimes gasp-inducing talk called “Summoning Spirits,” at the 2019 edition of Alumni Weekend on campus. 

In that sold-out talk, which was geared to non-academics, he explored the strange and mutable life of distilled liquor from the 15th through the 18th centuries, and its changing identities, from miracle elixir to alleged social scourge. 

“The reason I became interested in history was from hearing people speak on Fresh Air and places like that,” Breen explained. “It’s central to my work as an historian to reach a wider public and make it legible to them. And also it's really important for UCSC and UCSC’s Humanities Division, which is very strong on community engaged scholarship. That outreach is part of the mission of a public university.” 

Tripping On Utopia has sparked widespread discussion about one of Breen’s provocative and rigorously researched arguments: that the era of psychedelic drug experimentation did not begin in the ‘60s but the 1930s. 

If anything, the 1960s marked the end, not the beginning, of the Cold War psychedelic research era, he argues. As early as the 1940s, these mind-altering substances were entering the mainstream, at a time when they were not just legal but hailed as potential shortcuts to self-awareness and actualization. 

But government bodies soon elbowed their way into Mead’s and Bateson’s utopian visions of these drugs’ potential.

As Breen explains in the book, the Office of Strategic Services – the World War II-era forerunner of the CIA - helped direct and shape psychedelic research early on. 

After LSD was discovered in 1943, the CIA soon recognized its potential as a secret weapon for Americans to wield against its enemies in the Cold War. 

Both Mead and Bateson worked on an OSS team that explored hypnosis and mind-altering drugs as tools against totalitarian governments.

But both of them – and Bateson in particular – were horrified about the deceitful way in which many of those experiments were carried out. 

The CIA bankrolled public LSD studies in the MKULTRA program, which used the Macy Foundation as a research front. Both Bateson and Mead were involved in the foundation.

MKULTRA would become notorious for its disregard of legality as well as ethics as researchers engaged in drug testing on subjects without their consent.  Breen writes that “scraps, and hints, fragments of a larger story” strongly suggest that “despite her genuine good intentions, Mead likely contributed in some way to a project that has gone down in history as among the twentieth century’s most infamous abuses of medical research ethics.”

Breen hopes that his book - including those troubling passages about MKULTRA - are helpful for contemporary scientists who are embarking on their own psychedelic research. 

Some of that ongoing work is happening at UC San Francisco, whose Neuroscape Psychedelics Division is dedicated to advancing the field of psychedelic science and medicine through multi-level research covering basic to translational to clinical science. 

The research aims for breakthrough discoveries in psychiatry, neurology and neuroscience.

Breen said that today’s scientists should learn from Mead’s capacious view of psychedelic research, which encompassed non-Western cultural traditions as well as mainstream medical approaches. 

To a certain extent, that kind of research integration is happening today. 

“But I think there's a danger of creating this false binary between those two approaches,” Breen said. “On the one hand, we have the prescription psychedelics - which I think is going to happen quite soon - and on the other, there is a somewhat naive set of assumptions about psychedelic or plant medicine as something which is fixed in an unchanging past.”

“In reality  there's a huge amount of gray area between those two areas,” Breen continued. “For instance, there are anthropologists who do field work with non Western cultures of psychedelic use and then also are interested in the medical applications today.” 

Unfortunately, many of the lessons of the past are most helpful in terms of showing today’s scientists what not to do, Breen said. 

 “Getting informed consent (from research subjects) and being transparent with people is crucial,” he said. “At best, the 1950s approach to psychedelic medicine was somewhat condescending because it assumed an expert authority who is coming from on high and giving instructions, and at worst it was pretty brutal, with testing on unwitting civilians.”

Breen notes that Mead never publicly endorsed the use of LSD, nor is there any evidence that she ever used it herself - though she did write, in unpublished letters from 1954, that she intended to volunteer to take it as part of a study.  If Mead had ever made such a bold public statement about this drug, her fame and influence could have reshaped the legal and social trajectory of LSD in particular, and psychedelics as a whole, Breen said. 

“Margaret Mead  really is there at the very beginning of widespread awareness of LSD, and  she has this history of researching peyote,” Breen said. ““In the 1930s, her mentor Franz Boas, the anthropologist, had actually come out in favor of keeping peyote legal as a religious sacrament, so she was really looped in with that world very early.”

Mead’s reticence about the drug made it possible for others, including the notorious self-publicizer and LSD proselytizer Timothy Leary, to assume the role of psychedelics advocate.

“I personally think it would have been far preferable to have Mead in that role,” Breen said. “You know, Margaret Mead was not perfect, but she was deeply thoughtful and also motivated by genuine idealism. To have her be the figurehead for LSD and not Timothy Leary would have been, to my mind, a really good thing.”

Breen will read from his book at Bookshop Santa Cruz this coming Tuesday, January 23, at 7 p.m. Register here for this free event. The talk is co-sponsored by The Humanities Institute at UCSC (THI.)