The best books on the history of psychedelics

Who am I?

I have been researching and writing about the history of psychedelics for two decades. I am a professor of History and Canada Research Chair in the History of Health and Social Justice at the University of Saskatchewan. I became utterly inspired by the many different psychedelic projects that fascinated researchers across disciplines, regions, and world views. These psychoactive substances have been fodder for deep studies of consciousness, dying, mysticism, rituals, birthing practices, drug policy, Indigenous rites, mental illness, nursing, how to measure and give meaning to experience… the list goes on. To study psychedelics is to surrender yourself to endless curiosity about why things are the way they seem to be. The books on this list are just the tip of the iceberg in a diverse conversation that is erupting on this topic. 

I wrote...

Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus

By Erika Dyck,

Book cover of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus

What is my book about?

LSD's short but colorful history in North America carries with it the distinct cachet of counterculture and government experimentation. The truth about this mind-altering chemical cocktail is far more complex—and less controversial—than generally believed.

Psychedelic Psychiatry is the tale of medical researchers working to understand LSD’s therapeutic properties just as escalating anxieties about drug abuse in modern society laid the groundwork for the end of experimentation at the edge of psychopharmacology. Historian Erika Dyck deftly recasts our understanding of LSD to show it as an experimental substance, a medical treatment, and a tool for exploring psychotic perspectives—as well as a recreational drug. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

The Doors of Perception

By Aldous Huxley,

Book cover of The Doors of Perception

Why did I love this book?

It is almost cliché to recommend Doors of Perception in a list of books about psychedelics, but the book is a true gem. The work of a brilliantly curious writer, it takes us inside a world of mind alteration and sets in motion a conversation that nourished an early generation of psychedelic enthusiasm. The book is a reflection of Huxley’s mescaline experience, which he took under the direction of British-trained, but Canadian-based psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. In his Los Angeles home, Huxley met Osmond for the first time, and a month after his auspicious first trip, Osmond coined the word ‘psychedelic’ in his correspondence with Huxley. The book took on a life of its own, part memoir, part guidebook as psychedelic experimentation captivated the minds of researchers and psychonauts during the Cold War, and continues to be a rich entry point into this expanding field.

By Aldous Huxley,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Doors of Perception as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discover this profound account of Huxley's famous experimentation with mescalin that has influenced writers and artists for decades.

'Concise, evocative, wise and, above all, humane, The Doors of Perception is a masterpiece' Sunday Times

In 1953, in the presence of an investigator, Aldous Huxley took four-tenths of a gram of mescalin, sat down and waited to see what would happen. When he opened his eyes everything, from the flowers in a vase to the creases in his trousers, was transformed. Huxley described his experience with breathtaking immediacy in The Doors of Perception.

In its sequel Heaven and Hell, he goes…

Book cover of Inside the Mental: Silence, Stigma, Psychiatry, and LSD

Why did I love this book?

Kay Parley is a remarkable woman. Her book takes readers through her amazing life and the diverse experiences she encountered in an effort to make sense of her family history of psychiatric illness, her own institutionalization, and later her role as a psychiatric nurse and psychedelic guide. Against contemporary medical advice, Parley took LSD in Saskatchewan with Frances Huxley (Aldous’ nephew), and in this book, she explains how it gave her insights into her own excursions into madness and how to be a gentle guiding force for others who experienced disorientation, whether through illness or through mind-altering drugs.

By Kay Parley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inside the Mental as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A revelatory account of the importance that psychiatric treatment and research from the 1950s has for mental health today." Jean Freeman, author of Fists upon a Star Before she became a psychiatric nurse at "The Mental" in the 1950s, Kay Parley was a patient there, as were the father she barely remembered and the grandfather she'd never met. Part memoir, part history, and beautifully written, Inside The Mental offers an episodic journey into the stigma, horror, and redemption that she found within the institution's walls. Now in her nineties, Parley looks back at the emerging use of group therapy, the…

Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation

By Beatriz Caiuby Labate (editor), Clancy Cavnar (editor),

Book cover of Peyote: History, Tradition, Politics, and Conservation

Why did I love this book?

This editorial team has worked tirelessly to promote informed discussions about psychedelic plant medicines. Peyote is one of their many published books that takes seriously the need to consider issues of Indigenous reciprocity, gender inclusion, cultural context, and environmental sustainability in the world of psychedelics. Psychedelic justice is not simply about consuming plant medicines but involves a reciprocal set of relationships that honour a long and often disturbing history of cultural appropriation and psychedelic tourism.

By Beatriz Caiuby Labate (editor), Clancy Cavnar (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Peyote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book explains the role that peyote-a hallucinogenic cactus-plays in the religious and spiritual fulfillment of certain peoples in the United States and Mexico, and examines pressing issues concerning the regulation and conservation of peyote as well as issues of indigenous and religious rights.

Why is mescaline-an internationally controlled substance derived from peyote-given exemptions for religious use by indigenous groups in Mexico, and by the pan-indigenous Native American Church in the United States and Canada? What are the intersections of peyote use, constitutional law, and religious freedom? And why are natural populations of peyote in decline-so much so that in…

Book cover of The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact

Why did I love this book?

This is the first volume of lecture notes from the infamous Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, “inventor” of MDMA “ecstasy or molly”. Sasha and his wife Ann are well known in the world of psychedelics for their publications based on Sasha’s incredible knowledge of chemistry, Ann’s capacity to integrate experiences, and their shared contributions to the world of psychedelia. This new book, with an introduction from Mariavittoria Mangini, is a ‘warts and all’ introduction to the chemistry of mind alteration. It is highly accessible, at times comical, and a fascinating opportunity to voyeuristically sit in on a series of Shulgin lectures that promises to pique your curiosity about our chemical lives.

By Alexander Shulgin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Nature of Drugs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Nature of Drugs presents Sasha Shulgin's popular San Francisco State University course on what drugs are, how they work, how they are processed by the body, and how they affect our society. The course also delves into social issues and reactions involving drugs, and discussions of governmental attempts at controlling them and features Sasha's engaging lecture style peppered with illuminating anecdotes and amusing asides.

Book cover of Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research Since the Decade of the Brain

Why did I love this book?

Langlitz takes readers inside neuroscience laboratories in the United States and Switzerland to show readers how a cultural shift towards brain research has helped to lay the groundwork for a return of psychedelic science. Peaking behind the academic curtain, Langlitz gives readers a rather ‘sobering’ look at the business of neuroscience research and the innovative ways that scientists have invested in psychedelic studies while meeting new demands for ethical protocols and standards for human experimentation that do not allow for the kinds of approaches taken by an earlier generation of psychedelic researchers. 

By Nicolas Langlitz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Neuropsychedelia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Neuropsychedelia" examines the revival of psychedelic science since the "Decade of the Brain." After the breakdown of this previously prospering area of psychopharmacology, and in the wake of clashes between counterculture and establishment in the late 1960s, a new generation of hallucinogen researchers used the hype around the neurosciences in the 1990s to bring psychedelics back into the mainstream of science and society. This book is based on anthropological fieldwork and philosophical reflections on life and work in two laboratories that have played key roles in this development: a human lab in Switzerland and an animal lab in California. It…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in psychedelics, medications, and Psychotherapy?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about psychedelics, medications, and Psychotherapy.

Psychedelics Explore 18 books about psychedelics
Medications Explore 26 books about medications
Psychotherapy Explore 82 books about Psychotherapy