The Historic LSD Debate at MIT: Timothy Leary v. Professor Jerome Lettvin (1967)

On May 3, 1967, Dr. Tim­o­thy Leary, that high priest of hal­lu­cino­gens, faced off in a debate with MIT pro­fes­sor Dr. Jerome Lettvin about LSD in MIT’s Kres­ge Audi­to­ri­um. Leary spent the debate in the lotus posi­tion, dressed in a white gown, beads and bare feet. The very pic­ture of a counter cul­ture icon. Lettvin, on the oth­er hand, cuts a dis­tinct­ly con­ser­v­a­tive fig­ure, sport­ing a short-sleeved white shirt, a skin­ny tie and thick-framed glass­es. On first blush, the debate might look like a stereo­typ­i­cal clash between the hip ver­sus the square, but it end­ed up being much more inter­est­ing than that. Lettvin, who proved to be at least as charis­mat­ic as Leary, more than held his own against the man Richard Nixon once called “the most dan­ger­ous man in Amer­i­can.” You can watch the full debate above.

Leary speaks for the first half of the video. For those famil­iar with his rou­tine, lit­tle of what you see will come as a sur­prise. He argues that LSD is a “a way of life and a sacra­ment and a sacra­ment is some­thing that gets you high.” He goes on to cite ground­break­ing fig­ures like Ein­stein, New­ton and William James who strug­gled to under­stand real­i­ty and con­scious­ness. “The real goal of the sci­en­tist is to flip out,” he said to a packed audi­to­ri­um filled with future sci­en­tists. “I don’t know if LSD is good or bad. It’s a gam­ble. It’s a risk. The sacra­ment is always a risk. … What isn’t? But LSD is the best gam­ble in the house.” Aid­ing him with his argu­ment is a psy­che­del­ic pic­ture show fea­tur­ing a steady stream of images includ­ing ocean waves rolling back­ward, chil­dren bounc­ing on tram­po­lines, and a man in a goa­tee eat­ing soup, all set to a sound­track by Ravi Shankar.


“Tim, your argu­ment is exceed­ing­ly seduc­tive,” Lettvin con­cedes at the begin­ning of his pre­sen­ta­tion (it begins around the 30:30 mark), which had none of the visu­al raz­za­matazz of Leary’s spiel. “I feel like this man is [in] the hands of the dev­il.”

Lettvin, how­ev­er, proves not to be your stan­dard anti-drug scold. At one point in the debate, he pro­claims, “I can con­ceive of no more immoral thing than has been done by the gov­ern­ment in the whole­sale ban­ning of drugs. … There’s a fun­da­men­tal­ly mon­strous thing about for­bid­ding rather than rea­son­ing peo­ple out.” And that’s exact­ly what Lettvin set out to do — rea­son the audi­ence against tak­ing acid. “The ques­tion is not sci­en­tif­ic but moral,” he says. LSD has the poten­tial to rob tak­ers of their crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties, ren­der­ing them per­ma­nent­ly spaced out. “The price seems a lit­tle steep to pay. You are set­tling for a per­ma­nent sec­ond rate world by the abne­ga­tion of the intel­lect.”

Lettvin’s per­for­mance is all the more impres­sive because he had lit­tle time to pre­pare. The fac­ul­ty mem­ber who was orig­i­nal­ly slat­ed to debate Leary bowed out at the last moment, and orga­niz­ers scram­bled to get some­one, any­one, to face down the famed guru. Lettvin report­ed­ly came straight from the lab to the audi­to­ri­um and he even had to bor­row a tie. Too bad Leary didn’t have a spare Nehru jack­et.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Tim­o­thy Leary Plans a Neu­ro­mancer Video Game, with Art by Kei­th Har­ing, Music by Devo & Cameos by David Byrne

Beyond Tim­o­thy Leary: 2002 Film Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Artist Draws Nine Por­traits on LSD Dur­ing 1950s Research Exper­i­ment

Watch The Bicy­cle Trip: An Ani­ma­tion of The World’s First LSD Trip in 1943

Beyond Tim­o­thy Leary: 2002 Film Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing one new draw­ing of a vice pres­i­dent with an octo­pus on his head dai­ly.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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Comments (6)
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  • NikFromNYC says:

    I had­n’t heard of tem­po­ral lobe epilep­sy, what Lettvin accus­ing­ly equates spon­ta­neous flash­backs with. Here is Ter­rence McKen­na’s broth­er describ­ing it:

  • NikFromNYC says:

    Lettvin goes on to posit that psy­che­delics cre­ate a very long hang­over of loss of crit­i­cal rea­son and cre­ativ­i­ty. This pure­ly anec­do­tal argu­ment invok­ing a group of the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cists is now coun­tered by the way LSD was a pow­er­ful incen­tive dur­ing the aston­ish­ing devel­op­ment of Sil­i­con Val­ley and how the inven­tor of the PCR reac­tion for ampli­fy­ing DNA, Kary Mullis, was so strong­ly appre­cia­tive of psy­che­delics.

  • John Salerno says:

    Both the role of LSD in the devel­op­ment of sil­i­con val­ley and its role in the inven­tion of PCR by Ker­ry Mullis are equal­ly anec­do­tal. I’m not anti-LSD, and like Pro­fes­sor Lettvin (one of my pro­fes­sors) I think the gov­ern­ment has no busi­ness in reg­u­lat­ing any drug that does­n’t cause users to run amok. There is, how­ev­er, lit­tle or no evi­dence that LSD pro­motes major break­throughs. On the oth­er hand, I doubt that mod­er­ate use of LSD has crip­pled the intel­lec­tu­al poten­tial of gen­er­a­tions of sci­en­tists and engi­neers. It would be inter­est­ing to see the effect of a good dose on the US Con­gress; I doubt they would be able to main­tain their var­i­ous fic­tions for long.

  • lsd king says:

    you what lsd is peng

  • Daniel Williams says:

    Lettvin went neg­a­tive rather quick­ly — always the tac­tic of those with­out a com­pelling argu­ment.

  • Tommy says:

    I agree with you.

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