EDITOR’S NOTE: Nicolas Langlitz, an assistant professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research, tells us what he discovered while researching Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain (UC Press, 2012).
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Neuropsychedelia is about the revival of psychedelic research since the “Decade of the Brain,” i.e., the 1990s. It has a strong historical side revolving around the fact that psychedelic research basically broke down in the 1960s as a result of the political turmoil caused by the counterculture. Then, between the 1970s and 1990, there was no research on human subjects going on in academic settings, although there was a lot in underground settings. But in universities, the field was dead. Towards the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, it came alive again. The book is about how this revival became possible and the new generation of psychopharmacologists and neuroscientists that made it happen.
The book is also an ethnographic account of the work that is being done in these laboratories today, and as such it contributes to a growing body of literature on the practices of the neurosciences. It tackles a number of largely philosophical questions about the nature of neuroscientific research by looking at its practice. The book raises some critical questions about the use of randomized placebo controlled trials in psychedelic research. These challenges possibly apply to research on other kinds of psychoactive drugs as well.
The third thing is that there is a personal dimension to the book, as I was trying to make sense of my own psychedelic experiences and two contradictory interpretive frameworks. These frameworks, however, are not personal, but cultural; so in that respect, I took an auto-ethnographic point of entry into a cultural field which ultimately enabled me to reflect on the larger cultural logic that we have constructed around these substances. Basically the conflict is: are these experiences mystical experiences, or are they psychotic? I interviewed people about how they, as staunch materialist neuroscientists, make sense of their own experiences and derive my own conclusions from these conversations. In that respect, the book goes beyond a merely descriptive historiography and ethnography.