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Science, Art and Mescaline

Art, as we know it, is subjective. Different people can have vastly different interpretations of the same work, regardless of whether that work carries a message at all. Time, of course, also plays a part. What was shocking and radical in the past can be considered pedestrian today. The nature of the artists' work hinges completely on their unique experiences, traits, and thought processes, some of which not even the artist themselves is able to grasp. Which is why it is so surprising that in the mescaline trials conducted at the Maudsley Hospital, researchers managed to extract scientific data from artists' work in order to understand the effects of this hallucinogenic drug.

Mescaline, a hallucinogenic drug extracted from the peyote cactus and used in religious rituals by Native American plains tribes, has intrigued plenty of psychological researchers since the late 1800s. In Kurt Beringer's experiments of the 1920s, mescaline was administered to produce a 'model psychosis' which he could use to investigate the visions and emotional states in mentally healthy patients. Guttman and Maclay dispensed the drug for a similar purpose, though instead of junior doctors their participants were artists. They compared the artists' works during different stages of mescaline influence and recorded their experiences. They even went so far as to compare their participants' works with those of artists with a non-drug-related condition such as Louis Wain, a well-known cartoonist whose artistic output is said to have been transformed by his medical condition.

Guttman and Maclay found that mescaline had hugely different effects on different people indiscriminate of their traits or their experiences. This was illustrated by their findings on the artists Basil Beaumont and Julian Trevelyan. Trevelyan reported a 'magical transformation of everything [he] looked at' and 'a hyper-awareness of the beauty of things' when under the influence of mescaline. Beaumont's experiences, however, were wildly different. They were so frightening that he had to spend a night at Maudsley Hospital to recover. The differences in participants' experiences under the influence were so vast that Guttman and Maclay's study was inconclusive.

This is not to say, however, that we haven't learned anything from studying art. In the 1920s, Heinrich Klüver observed four distinct patterns in mescaline-influenced artworks - the cobweb, the tunnel, the lattice and the spiral, and argued that the works are not so wildly disparate that there are no trends. Building on these early studies, the biological revolution of psychology of the 1950s saw mescaline being used to open a window into schizophrenia, with the aim of discovering the cause of the illness and a potential cure. The work of Osmond and Smythies in particular birthed the idea that schizophrenia is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

At the end of it all, art is indeed subjective. But even the works in the Brilliant Visions exhibition, which will appear enigmatic to any one of us, can still be understood within a scientific context. Our understanding of psychiatry may well not be what it is today if these investigations on artists and their work had never taken place.