“Turn on, tune in, drop out” Dr. Timothy Leary, LSD and the Hippie Movement

–A defining quality of the hippie movement in the late sixties, the use of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, was as commonplace as the peace sign. An early adopter of LSD and preacher of its mind-blowing qualities, Dr. Timothy Leary would go on to write dozens of books on psychedelic experiences and their potential, inspiring and awing the world at large. He was an iconoclastic symbol of hippie counterculture and became seen as a pied piper for the younger generation wishing to rebel against the status quo (Doyle). Two of Dr. Leary’s most popular books, High Priest and The Politics of Ecstasy released in 1968 as well as TV interviews demonstrated his passion for the young population, praising young people who did LSD and urged parents to “try to understand why their kids were taking drugs and to learn what they were experiencing,” even suggesting that “when they’re spiritually ready, they’ll turn on with their children” (Doyle). He became known for his slogan, “turn on, tune in, drop out,” which occurred to him in the shower after friend Marshall McLuhan advised him to come up with “something snappy” to advertise the wonders of LSD. Frustrated with those who reduced his mantra to an excuse to get stoned and abandon all constructive activity, Dr. Leary stressed the meaning behind his ideology in his book Turn on Tune in Drop Out (1968):

“Drop Out—detach yourself from the external social drama which is as dehydrated and ersatz as TV.

Turn On—find a sacrament which returns you to the temple of God, your own body. Go out of your mind. Get high.

Tune In—be reborn. Drop back in to express it. Start a new sequence of behavior that reflects your vision.

            But the sequence must continue. You cannot stand still.

            Death. Life. Structure.” –Timothy Leary

Life Magazine March 25 1966

“Turn on, tune in, drop out” was more than just the preaching of self-enlightenment through psychedelic drugs, and additionally signified breaking free of social convention, questioning authority, and becoming independent thinkers (Miller). In fact, Dr. Leary even stated that while today’s sacrament is LSD, sacraments wear out, becoming “part of the social TV-studio game” and that the mantra is what should live on as verbal memory (Leary). The emphasis on introspection, and searching for internal control, internal freedom and internal solutions became paramount during a time of civil unrest in which the larger social and governmental bodies had failed to deliver on their promises (Leary). This slogan encapsulated the angst and frustration of the American people with the emphasis on materialism and current sacrifice now for pay-off later. The phrase itself, expressed in the present tense, demonstrates how the hippies understood this problem of American culture and conveys the urgency and emphasis they placed on conscious expression rather than succumbing to the “dead posturing of robot actors on the fake-prop TV studio stage set that is called American reality” (Leary).

“Turn on, tune in, drop out,” like other slogans, became a form of usable memory, deeply dependent on the context in which it was used. With distanciation from the year 1968, the slogan and the meaning behind it evolved with the needs of the society or the interests of the user. Commercialized in ads such as Squirt soda’s, “turn on to flavor, tune in to sparkle, and drop out of the cola rut” or in Billy Graham’s “turn on to Christ, tune in to the Bible, and drop out of sin,” Dr. Leary’s original LSD-centered slogan became a malleable memory that allowed the attitude of the Hippie movement to be applied to any context and to subsequently call on the popular hippie ethos (Siff). Through narrativization and distanciation, his slogan that originally signified turning on to psychedelic drugs, transformed into a catch phrase that encompassed “turning on and turning in to the nobler aspects of life without using drugs” and detaching oneself from “the meaningless living and senseless conflict with the older generation,” demonstrating memory’s processual nature (Siff). While Dr. Leary originally expressed that drop out meant “drop out–drop out of high school, drop out of college,” he later asserted that his catchphrase was purely metaphorical: “‘Drop out’ means drop out of conformity…’Drop out’ means change,” (Doyle).

As defined by Kenneth Foote, Dr. Timothy Leary and his quintessential hippie slogan became a rallying point for young hippies and would later become retrospectively representative of the ideology of the movement as a whole. Central to the goals of the hippie movement was the switch to the use of mind-expanding drugs and to subsequently “turn on” as many members of straight society as they could reach (Hall). Therefore Dr. Leary’s erotic slogan demonstrates the usability and partiality of memory as it became iconic for those who wished to subvert the popular culture and push for change in a world that was not meeting their needs—opting for LSD and disaffiliation from material society rather than, as one hippie puts it, “staying in the same rut year after year doing the same thing and thinking the same things and living the exact same ways” (The Hippie Revolution). The memory is partial in that despite their publicity, the hippies only comprised a few hundred thousand Americans, making their ideology and Dr. Leary’s slogan only partially representative of 1968 culture.

21 Feb 1968 — Dr. Timothy Leary announces at a press conference that his group will join forces with the Black Power Organization. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

The year 1968 was a defining year for young people disillusioned by their government’s false promise to protect them and their interests and thus the ideas and words of Dr. Leary resonated well within this population. As a result, the emergence of a counterculture—one that opposed ‘straight society’—catalyzed the mobilization of a group of people who previously did not exercise a loud political voice. As expressed in Time Magazine’s 1968 article, “Why Those Students Are Protesting”, seldom before had so many students organized so militantly or appeared to try so hard to reorder their universities, their countries, or the world at large (Why Those Students Are Protesting). Described by Harvard’s David Riesman in 1968 as “the babies who were picked up,” the teens and young adults of 1968 had much less direction than the previous generation and were challenged to think for themselves, leading many to adopt the subculture of hippiedom and its psychedelic ideology (Why Those Students Are Protesting). In these ideas one can hear a resonating narrative of today’s young people and their cynicism towards ‘straight society’.

Fifty years later, the emphasis on complete freedom still carries a resounding echo; the current mobilization of young people and their political voice can be paralleled to that of the hippie movement, only perhaps sans acid. In what could be a description of the attitude of many young people towards our current administration, “the hippies were convinced that American society was so degenerate that no scheme of structural changes could possibly succeed. The only hope for a better tomorrow was to drop out, to disaffiliate from society and encourage others to do the same” (Miller). The distanciation of the memory associated with Dr. Leary’s radical campaign for LSD has resulted in a more muted interpretation of the hippie movement as a site of 1968 memory, however, the same fed up attitude towards society remain. While students may not be dropping out entirely, the past two years have seen a radical parallel to the Hippie movement in student walkouts, protests, and social media campaigns as seen in the “March for Our Lives” movement or the “Me Too” movement in which young people ‘drop out’ of conforming to previous societal norms. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” is thus revered as a site of American memory in which a radical doctor mobilized a group of young people and over time, through the processual, partial, and usable nature of the memory, created an ideology that encompassed the very foundation of the hippie revolution.

Dr. Timothy Leary explains meaning behind slogan “Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out” 1968.

Works Cited

Doyle, Jack. “Legend of a Mind: Timothy Leary, 1960s,” PopHistoryDig.com, 26 November 2014.

Hall, Stuart. The Hippies: an American ‘Moment’. No. 16. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1968.

Miller, Timothy S. The hippies and American values. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2012.

Leary, Timothy. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Ronin Publishing, 2009.

“Why Those Students Are Protesting.” Time, vol. 91, no. 18, 03 May 1968, p. 26. EBSCOhost, auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxy_auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=54040623&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

The Hippie Revolution. Directed by Jack O’Connell, 1968.

Siff, Stephen. “Moral Panic and Media Hype.” Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience, edited by Stephen Siff, University of Illinois Press, 2015, pp. 150.


Dr. Timothy Leary (right) with John Lennon and company at their “bed-in for peace” (1968)

2 thoughts on ““Turn on, tune in, drop out” Dr. Timothy Leary, LSD and the Hippie Movement”

  1. This was a phenomenal analysis and post. I loved how you symbolized the revolution of the hippie movement through a literal saying, a verbal memory, that can become distorted through distanciation. It’ll be interesting to note how as time progress the use of the saying will lose its foundation and roots within the hippie culture as the saying has the potential to become associated with its later usage by figures such as Billy Graham or by advertisement companies. Also, I loved how you connected the hippie movement to a revolution. Implied within word “revolution” comes the idea that the hippie movement is almost its own nation or state. Very nice word choice. Overall, great post!

  2. The visual imaging and colorful vocabulary really emphasized the deeper meaning of one of the big foundations of the Hippie Movement: drugs(LSD in this case). The general overview that connects smoothly with the bigger picture in an ease really showed your knowledge of the material and brought this post out as one of my favorites. The connection of the “malleable memory” and examples of how the phrase “Turn on, Tune in or Drop out” has been used over time was an interesting aspect, especially the religious “version” of this quote. All in all, amazing post and very well-written!!

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