UC Berkeley and Harvard Jointly Launch Study of Psychedelics’ Influence on Art, History and Human Existence
Among the questions the initiative will explore: What might psychedelics reveal about how societies change? How have they shaped music, history and art? Can they shed new light on age-old questions about what it means to be human, to think and to exist?
On November 15, the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University announced a new, collaborative initiative that will expand psychedelic research across the arts, humanities and social sciences. Called “Psychedelics in Society and Culture,” the joint effort between the nation’s foremost public and private universities will foster new ways of thinking and partnering to answer some of the most pressing and intriguing questions surrounding psychedelics and society.
While much research to date has centered on the important potential of therapeutic applications of psychedelics, this groundbreaking collaboration is one of the first comprehensive programs dedicated to exploring the cultural, humanistic and societal significance of psychedelics.
Through generous philanthropy, the initiative aims to advance interdisciplinary research in these under-explored domains, providing students and faculty researchers grants of up to $100,000 for creative and innovative projects both within and between the two universities. This collaborative venture, funded by different donors at each institution, is a testament to the current momentum propelling the expansion of psychedelic research within the nascent field.
Renowned author Michael Pollan, who co-founded the BCSP and is well-known for his book How to Change Your Mind, plays an important role at both universities and has long advocated for expanding psychedelic research into the humanities.
“This new initiative of UC Berkeley and Harvard will delve into new areas of essential psychedelic inquiry,” Pollan said. “How might psychedelics affect our relationship with death or the natural world or our understanding of consciousness? What roles have psychedelics historically played in social change or religion? The possibilities for research and collaboration are endless, exciting, and will have the potential to shed fresh light on these questions and so many others.”
Led by the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics (BCSP), the Center for Interdisciplinary Critical Inquiry (CICI), and Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center (MHC), this collaborative effort promises to produce invaluable contributions to both institutions’ burgeoning psychedelics programs.
The Psychedelics in Society and Culture program encourages research into the multifaceted role of psychedelics across diverse histories, cultures and geographies. Potential research topics could range from Indigenous communities’ contemporary use of psychedelics to ethical considerations surrounding patenting to the interplay of psychedelics with philosophical questions around the nature of reality, consciousness, religion and the human experience.
Flourish Trust — an organization committed to catalyzing the healing and regeneration of humanity and the planet — has generously donated $1 million to fund the UC Berkeley grants over three years.
“The enormous potential of psychedelics for healing isn’t limited to their biological effects,” said Flourish Trust director Christiana Musk. “For millennia, natural psychedelic plants have played a significant role in cultural development and meaning-making. This program will open doors of understanding into how these compounds have helped shape society and how we might navigate them to the benefit of humanity.”
Meet the Academic Centers Leading the Initiative
CICI is a gathering place for critical and creative inquiry aimed at addressing the key political, social, religious and cultural issues facing society through collaboration. “Literature and the arts have a longstanding historical relationship with altered states of perception and consciousness that yield new visions of what it means to be in the world,” said center faculty director Debarati Sanyal. “The Psychedelics in Society and Culture collaboration between Berkeley and Harvard aims to explore the role that psychedelics continue to play in that story and to support creative and critical inquiry into what is now a burgeoning interdisciplinary field.”
“The resurgence of interest in psychedelics provokes many questions about our relationship with these substances, the role they play in our society, and what they reveal about human nature,” said Imran Khan, executive director of BCSP, the interdisciplinary center at Berkeley focused on psychedelics research, public education and training. “This new joint psychedelics research program between UC Berkeley and Harvard will help answer some of those questions – and hopefully reveal just as many new ones.”
Bruno Carvalho, interim director of the center convening the initiative at Harvard — the MHC — said, “We now have unprecedented support to think carefully and imaginatively about the histories and implications of psychedelics to the human experience. Humanistic inquiry on this topic is vital. We look forward to learning from and collaborating with both seasoned experts and newcomers to the field. Our partnership with UC Berkeley is at the heart of that.”
Grants for eligible projects are open to groups or individuals at the level of undergraduate, graduate students, or faculty at all levels. Psychedelics in Society and Culture will welcome a wide range of proposals, including original scholarship and research projects, public events, dissemination of specialized knowledge, arts programming, fellowship programs,and travel grants.
Applications will open at UC Berkeley and Harvard on December 15, 2023. For more information about the program mission and how to apply, visit the Psychedelics in Society and Culture program page.