Friday, June 17, 2011

The Interpersonal Circumplex and the Papers of Dr. Timothy Leary

Before he became synonomous with the psychedelic drug culture of the 1960s, Dr. Timothy Leary was a former West Point cadet and a trained psychologist who developed the interpersonal circumplex, a model for conceptualizing, organizing, and assessing interpersonal behavior, traits, and motives. The interpersonal circumplex is defined by two orthogonal axes: a vertical axis (of status, dominance, power, or control) and a horizontal axis (of solidarity, friendliness, warmth, or love)
During the twentieth century, there were a number of efforts by personality psychologists to create comprehensive taxonomies to describe the most important and fundamental traits of human nature. Developed in 1957 by Timothy Leary,  the circumplex is a circular continuum of personality formed from the intersection of two base axes: Power and Love. The opposing sides of the power axis are dominance and submission, while the opposing sides of the love axis are love and hate. 

Leary argued that all other dimensions of personality can be viewed as a blending of these two axes. For example, a person who is stubborn and inflexible in their personal relationships might graph her personality somewhere on the arc between dominance and love. However, a person who exhibits passive–aggressive tendencies might find herself best described on the arc between submission and hate. The main idea of the Leary Circumplex is that each and every human trait can be mapped as a vector coordinate within this circle.

Furthermore, the Leary Circumplex also represents a kind of bull's eye of healthy psychological adjustment. Theoretically speaking, the most well-adjusted person of the planet could have their personality mapped at the exact center of the circumplex, right at the intersection of the two axes, while individuals exhibiting extremes in personality would be located on the circumference of the circle.

The Leary Circumplex offers three major benefits as a taxonomy. It offers a map of interpersonal traits within a geometric circle. It allows for comparison of different traits within the system. It provides a scale of healthy and unhealthy expressions of each trait.

Later, of course, Dr. Leary would later become famous for his controversial LSD experiments at Harvard.  Dr. Leary's papers were recently purchased by the New York City Public Library. They contain historical and cultural nuggets, such as Allen Ginsberg's early experience with psychedelics: “The first time I took psilocybin — 10 pills — was in the fireside social setting in Cambridge,” Ginsberg wrote in a blow-by-blow description of his experience taking synthesized hallucinogenic mushrooms at Leary’s stately home. At one point Ginsberg, naked and nauseated, began to feel scared, but then “Professor Leary came into my room, looked in my eyes and said I was a great man.”

The NY Times reports that "The material documents the evolution of the tweedy middle-aged academic into a drug guru, international outlaw, gubernatorial candidate, computer software designer and progenitor of the Me Decade’s self-absorbed interest in self-help.
The archive will not be available to the public or scholars for 18 to 24 months, as the library organizes the papers. A preview of the collection, however, reveals a rich record not only of Leary’s tumultuous life but also of the lives of many significant cultural figures in the ’60, ’70s and ’80s."

Leary, who died in 1996, coined the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and was labeled by Richard M. Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America.” He was present in Zelig-like fashion at some of the era’s epochal events. Thousands of letters and papers from Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Charles Mingus, Maynard Ferguson, Arthur Koestler, G. Gordon Liddy and even Cary Grant — an enthusiastic LSD user — are in the boxes.


“How about contributing to my next prose masterpiece by sending me (as you sent Burroughs) a bottle of SM pills,” Kerouac wrote Leary, referring to psilocybin. “Allen said I could knock off a daily chapter with 2 SMs and be done with a whole novel in a month.”

More details here

DITHOB met Dr. Leary in passing in the late 1970s, when a nexus of Brooklyn and former NYU pals and I attended a show at the Bottom Line in the Village. I don't remember the performer. But I do recall that we were for reasons totally unknown to us seated at a fairly large and prominent table by Alan Pepper, one of the owners, who then seated Dr. Leary at an unoccupied adjoining table. Dr. Leary, who was released from prison in 1978, sat with a female friend, appearing mellow and healthy. We said hello to the good Doctor and proceeded to enjoy the show. Someone nudged me at one point and we saw someone furtively smoking a hand-rolled cigarette before the management could tell them to put it out.  It was proferred to Dr. Leary, but he smiled and waved it off politely. By that time, no doubt, he had had enough problems.

More on Dr. Leary here 

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