1 Devonshire Pl, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy
PhD Candidate, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, University of Toronto
In the 1950s and 1960s, many psychiatrists in the US used the mind-altering drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to help patients explore their unconscious minds. A handful of these psychiatrists discovered that if LSD was taken in a comfortable, compassionate, and aesthetically pleasing environment, it could generate powerful, spiritually transformative experiences that had lasting mental health benefits. This specific approach to LSD therapy became known as "psychedelic" (mind-manifesting) therapy. In 1962, after becoming impressed with psychedelic therapy, the clinical psychologist Gary Fisher decided to see if LSD could help twelve “severely disturbed” children who he worked with at Fairview State Hospital in Costa Mesa, California. The environment at Fairview though was less than ideal. The children’s ward was “bleak and barren” and the atmosphere was “constant pandemonium.” Many children were “hyperactive, screaming, [and] assaultive.” Despite these difficult conditions, Fisher did his best to create a comfortable setting in the visitor’s room to help children have positive LSD experiences. Drawing on Fisher’s notes about these LSD sessions, I explore how children reacted to psychedelic therapy in such difficult circumstances. Surprisingly, Fisher found that some of the children were often able to enjoy the “psychedelic experience” in the same way that “normal adults” did: they took pleasure in sensory stimuli and in music, they became “more alive,” and they seemed to have profound, transcendental experiences. What this case ultimately highlights then is the resilience of these children. In the chaotic environment of a state institution, suffering from difficult mental conditions and subjected to unethical experimentation, these children were able to have positive experiences.