Illustration by Diana Chen

In 1960, a Harvard psychology professor named Timothy Leary tried psilocybin mushrooms in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and learned more about his brain in five hours than the previous fifteen years of academia had, according to a later recollection. He returned to Cambridge and established the Harvard Psilocybin Project with Richard Alpert, a fellow professor. Thus, the psychedelic movement of the ‘60s was born—a product of the Ivy League. Through twists, trips, and turns, an institutional interest in psychedelics has finally made its way back to higher education. This year, a number of Princeton students established Eleusis, the first psychedelic organization in the Ivy League since Leary’s and Alpert’s historic project. Their mission?To foster “the informed and interdisciplinary study of psychedelics through academic discussion.”

I met with Sonia Joseph ‘19, who first envisioned Eleusis, in the Chancellor Green Café.  I didn’t know what to expect given the loopy, multicolored psychedelic stereotype, but I found Joseph to be less Grateful Dead and more TED talk: white blouse, laser focus, and speech that moved in sharp, articulated bursts.

Joseph has been drawn to neuroscience from a young age, when it allowed her to cope with what she now believes is an undiagnosed variant of Asperger’s Syndrome.  “In order to understand people’s behavior, I would be like, ‘Oh, he must be acting that way because his serotonin is low,’ or ‘She must be bad because her amygdala is rapidly functioning.’ Understanding neuroscience in a very molecular, mechanistic level helped me understand people,” she said.

She was also interested in Eastern spirituality.  “My dad was very obsessed with applying Western methods of science to things like Buddhism that are not considered to be empirically sound,” she said. Books on Eastern spirituality sat alongside neuroscience textbooks in her family’s bookshelf.

One of these, The Road to Eleusis, after which the group is named, describes the use of ergot, a psychedelic fungus similar to LSD, in ancient Greece. Thousands would make the pilgrimage along the Sacred Way from Athens to the nearby village of Eleusis to perform a secret ritual referred to as the “Mystery of Eleusis.” They would dance until the early morning in honor of Dionysus, and then, bound to secrecy, they would enter a fortress where “the division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.” Because of the taboo, Joseph expressed her interest in psychedelics among only close friends during her freshman year. Regardless, they were never far from her mind: she showed me an essay she wrote for a Slavic literature class entitled “Nabokov’s Literature as Psychedelic Experience.”

“When he describes the creative process, it sounds eerily similar to an ego death,” Joseph said. “Whenever I read him, I feel like I’m on drugs.”

Over Christmas break this year, Joseph decided it was time to strike. She drafted a post for the Facebook page of every class, soliciting anyone interested in a “psychedelic awareness organization.”

When she finally pressed send, she realized, “I’m out of the so-called psychedelic closet.”

The response was predominantly positive. She was approached by other interested students in the following weeks, and after a series of coffee dates and a petition for ODUS approval, Eleusis came into being. 

“Psychedelics are a gold mine,” Joseph said. “All you have to do is tap into it.” 

And they did. Before long, psychedelics organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) began contacting them. Their inboxes were filled with emails from across the country. They even received an expression of support from a Harvard professor.

Joseph sees psychedelics as medicine. She described the ideal brain as an upside-down U on a graph of “function vs. chaos.” Rigid brains on the far left suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or depression, while chaotic brains on the opposite extreme suffer from illnesses like schizophrenia. Like Goldilocks, the ideal brain sits somewhere in the middle. 

Psychedelics, Joseph said, make the brain flexible. “They take brains that don’t have enough chaos and they introduce that chaos.”

One of the greatest obstacles facing Eleusis is stigma. Joseph has to choose her language carefully: she says “LSD” instead of “acid’”and “psilocybin” instead of “shrooms.” “When you think of shrooms you often think of your little brother’s sketchy friend on a street corner,” she said.

Joseph also resists the “tie-dye” reputation of psychedelics that flourished in Haight and Ashbury in the ‘60s. “Ever since I came out as being an advocate of psychedelic reform, I’ve decided to always wear pearl earrings,” she said. “Psychedelics and pearls. People don’t expect that.”

Halfway through our meeting, Edgar Preciado Jr. ‘18 met Sonia and me in the Chancellor Green Café with a serene smile and a warm hello.  Preciado is Eleusis’ Treasurer and Director of Public Policy Change. He practices meditation frequently.

Preciado came to Eleusis primarily from a sociological perspective. He plans to write his thesis on Mexican-American drug users in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “We can see throughout history a lot of parallels between drug use and marginalized identities,” he said.

He cites the U.S. crack epidemic, when black users were depicted as “violent and aggressive savages.” But, he said, “once you have this idea planted that psychedelic identities are actually gifted Princeton students, that might actually shift the conversation.”

Preciado has the distinct position of examining drug use from these radically different perspectives. Psychedelics, he says, have helped him examine his own identity. “As a person of color, as a low-income individual who has experienced some very traumatic things growing up in the city of Compton, some of those things actually came out during those experiences, and it was an incredible way of releasing that energy, that anxiety, that depression,” he said.

Preciado’s account is typical of many psychedelic trips. The experience of self-examination is central to psychedelics—after all, the word is derived from the Greek psyche-deloun, meaning “mind-revealing.”

Autumn Rose ‘19, Eleusis’ Events Coordinator, compares the “mind-revealing” uses of psychedelics to Buddhist practice. “The point of meditating and becoming a monk and going and living in a monastery for forty years to meditate every day is to dissolve the sense of egotism,” she said. “That’s the main way to reach Nirvana.”

Rose, who has a Ganesha sticker on her laptop and a Bodhisattva vow tattooed on her back, came to Eleusis from a background in Buddhism. Her primary interest in Eleusis is the “ego-death aspect of it. Basically, you realize that you’re not distinct from anyone else, and when you realize that, you’re enlightened. I see psychedelics as kind of a shortcut into that,” she said.

Buddhism seems to pop up often in psychedelic circles. Four of the six Eleusis directors practice it in some regard. 

“I mean, the Dalai Lama didn’t approve of it,” Preciado said.  Still, these spiritual associations challenge many stigmas. “Can you imagine monks consuming ayahuasca?”

The parallel, however, only goes so far. “You can meditate every day,” Preciado said. “I wouldn’t recommend taking psychedelics every day.”

At one meeting in December, fifteen students sat in a circle of leather chairs in the Class of 1915 Common Room to discuss an article titled “The Brain on LSD Looks a Lot like a Baby’s.” They discussed the potential uses of psychedelics in psychotherapy, the danger of taking LSD in a sensory deprivation tank, and the procedural drawbacks of using MRI scanners to study a tripping brain. Joseph, sitting cross-legged and characteristically alert, played moderator. She was wearing her pearl earrings.

The Eleusis board members who were present went to great lengths to maintain the group’s commitment to “academic discussion.” Eleusis does not exist to deal drugs, they said. Eleusis does not endorse illegal drug use. Furthermore, any personal stories shared would be kept confidential.

Joseph hopes to organize a psychedelics conference in early October with guest speakers and events. She also hopes to expand Eleusis’ focus to psychonautics—an umbrella term for various methods of manipulating consciousness. In addition to psychedelics, this could include meditation, yoga, and even virtual reality.

For now, Edgar says, Eleusis will focus on psychedelics. Branding is a consideration. Concerning psychonautics, he said, “I don’t really like the ‘psycho’ part.”

Eleusis is still seeking members to help organize the conference in the fall. They hope to expand and foster interest in psychedelics within and beyond Princeton’s campus. The students behind Eleusis are optimistic about the changes that the study of psychedelics could effect. At the end of our conversation, Preciado thought quietly for a moment, and then smiled. “If Donald Trump took psychedelics,” he said, “we would be living in a very different America.”