Stanley Krippner, Ph.D. Alan Watts Professor of Psychology, Saybrook Graduate School & Research Center
William James, the first eminent psychologist in the United States, once ingested peyote at the suggestion of his friend, E. Weir Mitchell. Instead of attaining the esthetic or mystical experience Mitchell had promised him, James developed a severe stomach ache. When he recovered from the nausea, James refused to take peyote again, telling Mitchell, “I will take the visions on trust.”
James’ experiences with nitrous oxide were more successful. After inhaling the colorless gas for the first time, he experienced a profound alteration in consciousness. Further work with “laughing gas” led James to write that normal, everyday awareness is only one type of conscious experience. Noting that other experiences exist that are worthy of investigation, the famed psychologist concluded, “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
James was a founder of the American Society for Psychical Research, an organization that pioneered the investigation of so-called parapsychological phenomena. Parapsychologists investigate reported experiences and behaviors that appear to transcend mainstream science’s understanding of time, space, and energy, and have used such terms as “telepathy,” “clairvoyance,” “precognition,” and “psychokinesis” to describe these experiences. Some parapsychologists also study so-called “past-life experiences” and “after-death communications” from deceased people.
Even though experiences with LSD-type substances are unpredictable, and even though parapsychological experiences tend to be intangible, there are some logical reasons that suggest the former experiences might be conducive to the occurrence of the latter. Considerable research suggests that reports of parapsychological experiences occur during states of consciousness that are marked by
an increase in mental imagery that is unusually vivid and detailed;
the occurrence of transpersonal experiences that seem to transcend one’s identity;
an alteration in body perception, including so-called “out-of-body” experiences;
the incidence of dissociation, in which one’s flow of awareness is interrupted;
an increase in absorption and focused attention;
an increase in empathy and feelings of closeness with other people;
enhanced emotional flexibility, intensity, and fluidity;
an increase in alertness, attention, and awareness;
an increase in spontaneity and the impression that one has become more creative;
an increase in sensitivity to environmental changes;
an increase in suggestibility and responsiveness to others;
enhanced intuitive processes and awareness of one’s internal thoughts;
an increased openness to occurrences once thought to be impossible;
a reduction in critical faculties and skeptical thought patterns;
an increased feeling that space and time have been transcended.
In addition to these temporary changes that might be conducive to subjective
parapsychological experiences, it is arguable that long-term ideological alterations might occur including changes in one’s concepts of “reality” and one’s ability to utilize presumptive parapsychological skills. For example, the renowned medium Eileen Garrett asserted that the use of LSD had enhanced her sensitivity and accuracy. In the meantime, several studies have revealed a small but consistent relationship between drug use and belief in the existence of parapsychological phenomena; this was especially evident in Tart’s study of marijuana users.
Another reason for investigating the links between reported parapsychological experiences and LSD-type substances is the exploration of the accompanying brain mechanisms. Roney-Dougal, for example, has proposed a model based on the action of the pineal gland in response to ayahuasca, the Amazonian brew that contains the alkaloid harmaline, once dubbed “telepathine” because of its alleged evocation of telepathy. Strassman has hypothesized a role for DMT similar to that suggested by Roney-Dougal. He has implicated the overproduction of DMT and its effects on the pineal gland in states ranging from psychosis to mysticism. Ketamine, an anesthetic that induces dissociation, has been associated with “near-death” experiences, some of which contain purported parapsychological elements. Jansen has hypothesized that ketamine acts by binding to the phencyclidine (PCP) site of the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) reception, blocking the action of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Winkelman has used the term “psychointegrators” to describe the way that LSD-type substances “integrate” various portions and functions of the brain and nervous system. If there are “visionary molecules” in the human brain and body, it is likely that they served an adaptive purpose in the evolution of the species. Hence, the investigation of this topic may have critical implications for biology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology.
The anthropological and ethnobotanical literature is replete with examples of ostensibly parapsychological phenomena occurring with the traditional use of psychoactive plants. For millennia, indigenous societies have used these plant preparations to communicate with purported other-worldly realms and entities, as well as to maintain their linkages to the natural world.
The ritual use of psychoactive plants to induce purported parapsychological skills is commonplace among indigenous people from every inhabited continent. Clairvoyant states were routinely accessed among tribal groups in Morocco through ingesting extracts of a shrub containing a harmala alkaloid, and among rural communities in India through smoking or eating Cannabis derivatives. Other examples include the ingestion of pituri among several Australian aboriginal tribes, San Pedro cactus among indigenous groups in Peru, amanita mushrooms among Siberian tribes and the Ojibwa in Canada, and psilocybin mushrooms among the Mazatecs in Mexico, who also used salvia divinorum. Thorn apple seeds were used by some of the Delphic oracles to activate their alleged precognitive skills, and there is a long history of ibogaine ingestion among several African societies. In 1992, Schultes and Hofmann identified some 100 psychoactive plants that were employed to access visionary states by traditional people, a practice especially common among shamans and shamanic healers in hunting and gathering communities.
McGovern was one of the first anthropologists to investigate the use of ayahuasca (also called yagé, the “vine of the soul”) on an expedition to Peru. He imbibed the beverage himself in a native ceremony, noting:
Curiously enough, certain of the Indians fell into a particularly deep state of trance in which they possessed what appeared to be telepathic powers. Two or three of the men described in great detail what was going on…hundreds of miles away….More extraordinarily still, on this particular evening, the local medicine man told me that the chief of a certain tribe on the far away Pra Pirana [River] had suddenly died. I entered this statement in my diary and many weeks later, when we came to the tribe in question, I found that [his] statement had been true in every detail.
Another early report was submitted by Zerda-Bayon who related the case of a Colonel Morales who, after ingesting a similar substance in Peru, beheld an image of his dead father and his ailing sister, both of whom had been in good health when last he saw them. A few weeks later he received the same sad news from a messenger.
Western culture severed the connection between psychoactive plants and visionary states when Zoroaster banned the use of the haoma plant in Persia, when the Eleusinian rituals in Greece fell into disrepute, and when witches were persecuted during the Inquisition, in part because of their use of henbane, belladonna, mandrake, and datura.
A combination of changing concepts of illness, the development of sedentary societies, and the influence of monotheistic religions and colonization resulted in the virtual disappearance of traditional employment of psychoactive plants for parapsychological purposes in most of Europe and North America, and much of the rest of the so-called “civilized world.” However, Naranjo, in a 1967 report, described his experiment with 30 volunteer participants who ingested a harmaline preparation, apparently with no knowledge of its usage in the Amazon rain forest. Many of their reports included images of jaguars, jungles, and dark-skinned men. In addition, some imagined that they were flying.
More recently, Narby introduced three Western scientists to shamanic practitioners in the Amazonian rain forest who administered ayahuasca. The scientists brought unsolved technical problems with them, and each reported key insights resulting from the session. In discussing the origins of the brew, Narby commented, "Here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a...brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the effect. And they do this to modify their consciousness. It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they knew these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from [the] plants.”
Clinical and Anecdotal Data
There are several anecdotal and clinical case studies on record in which the ingestion of LSD-type substances resulted in presumptive parapsychological experiences. For example, Grof wrote an account regarding two of his friends who were vacationing in Maine. One of them, “Peter,” went scuba diving and never returned. Consequently, his wife, “Penny,” had difficulty accepting her husband’s death; this was especially problematic for her because his body was never found. During a psychotherapeutic LSD session with Grof, Penny reported “communicating” with Peter who explained that he was, in fact, dead. Peter gave Penny specific instructions concerning each of their children and requested that she get on with her life. Peter then asked Penny to return a book that he had borrowed from a friend, giving Penny the friend’s name, the title of the book, and the location of the book in their house. All of this information was correct, and Penny returned the book to its owner. Following this dramatic experience, Penny was able to accept Peter’s death and to begin working through her grief.
A less spectacular report was contributed by Masters and Houston who described the case of a homemaker who, in the course of her LSD session with them, claimed that she could “see” her daughter in the kitchen of their home looking for the cookie jar. She further reported “seeing” the child knock a sugar bowl from a shelf, spilling sugar on the floor. When the woman returned home, she was unable to find the sugar bowl. Her husband told her that their daughter had knocked the sugar bowl from its shelf, breaking it, while looking for the cookie jar.
One evening, a psychiatrist ate an amanita mushroom in a laboratory 300 miles from the office in which she usually conducted her psychotherapeutic practice. Her experience included intense visual imagery alternating between an atomic bomb explosion and an appreciation of what she called “the power of love.” At the very time of her amanita session, a client of hers, “Jim,” unaccountably went to a grocery store and bought prepared mushrooms (which he had never cooked before), ate them with a hamburger, and later had an anxiety attack, fearing that an atomic bomb attack was imminent. Another client of hers, “Joan,” during the same evening, insisted that a close friend, “Gina’” drive her to the home of a man with whom the client was secretly in love. “Joan” sat in her friend “Gina’s” care for two hours yearning for the object of her attraction. It was only “Gina’s” vigilance that prevented her from entering the man’s house and throwing herself into his arms. Both “Jim” and “Joan” had expressed an interest in parapsychology, and both had unusually strong emotional attachments to their psychotherapist. The psychiatrist hypothesized that these two highly irrational acts by her clients might have been telepathically induced through her amanita mushroom experience.
Blewett has reported the case of a teacher who took LSD under his direction. Her experience was conceptual rather than veridical, but illustrates a worldview closely associated with parapsychological experiences. She told Blewett, “I was outside our dimensions of space and time and felt an understanding of infinity. The understanding was so broad or universal that it forestalled all questions. Questions such as, ‘What is beyond space?’ which had previously posed an intellectual problem, had no meaning for me since the answer was ‘other spaces—an infinity of them’.”
Blewett administered a questionnaire to 147 of his research participants within a week following their experience. The questionnaire posed three questions, and answers were given on a 3-point scale: “Very much,” “Little,” or “None.” About 60% of his participants answered “Very Much” to each of the three questions:
1. Did you feel that you were aware of new dimensions of thought?
2. Did you feel an awareness of several levels of awareness?
3. Did you feel that you were able to think on different levels?
The results of this survey, published in 1963, led Blewett to recommend the use of LSD-type substances in parapsychological research. He concluded, “Perhaps the greatest impact of these compounds will stem from the development of new methods and techniques designed to meet the challenge which they offer as research tools.”
Anecdotal reports involving psychokinesis (“mind over matter”) are less common than those involving telepathy (“mind to mind communication”), clairvoyance (“remote perception”), and precognition (“viewing the future”). However, Dean Brown relates an incident when he took LSD under the direction of Al Hubbard, an early advocate of the substance. While driving back to Las Vegas, following their time together in the mountains of Nevada, Hubbard asked Brown to take a dollar bill out of his wallet. Hubbard then proceeded to identify each of the ten serial numbers and letters not only of that bill, but of several others. If this report is accurate, it would serve as an example of clairvoyance. Hubbard confided that he had developed these skills through his previous use of LSD. However, Hubbard later insisted they enter a casino in Las Vegas where, according to Brown’s account, Hubbard was able to use psychokinesis to influence several gaming machines to pay off in his favor. However, Hubbard’s reputation was well-known in the casino and he was politely escorted out when his limit of earnings had been reached.
Millay has reported an incident that occurred when her young daughter, Maya, was visiting her father, Millay’s former husband, in the Caroline Islands. When Maya did not return at the appointed time, Millay ingested mescaline and attempted to “clear” her mind of any distracting influences. After four hours of “clearing,” Millay had the impression that she had made contact with Maya. Her daughter seemed to tell Millay that there had been a problem with vaccinations and transportation, and that it would be explained in a letter. She also had an image of her daughter holding an animal that resembled a raccoon. Maya’s letter arrived, as predicted, and the information about vaccinations and travel logistics was correct. What about the animal? Maya had tamed a colorful jungle pheasant and tried to smuggle it home in her backpack. When her father discovered this plan, he became angry and killed the pheasant. Both Millay and her daughter recalled that, as a child, she had bought a raccoon at a pet store, but as it grew older the animal terrorized the neighborhood. A neighbor threatened to shoot the animal, but a solution was reached in which the raccoon was taken back to the pet store.
I was one of the last participants to enroll in Timothy Leary’s psilocybin experiment at Harvard University. In 1962, Leary and his assistants administered the substance to Steve, a friend of mine, and to me, and I soon began to report images of delicate Moorish arabesques and Persian miniature paintings. I went on a whirlwind tour of France, Spain, New York, and Baltimore, ending up in Washington, DC where I found myself gazing at a bust of Abraham Lincoln. While watching the features from the side, in profile, they began to darken and someone whispered, “He was shot. The president was shot.” A wisp of smoke rose from a gun and curled into the air. Lincoln’s features slowly faded away and those of the current president, John F. Kennedy, took their place. The wisp of smoke was still emerging from the gun, and the voice repeated, “He was shot. The president was shot.” I opened my ears because they were dripping tears. For whatever reason, the tragic premonition was confirmed the following year.
At the beginning of our psilocybin session, I attempted to administer a psychological test to my friend. After answering three questions, Steve burst out laughing and I joined him because the task seemed utterly ridiculous. In retrospect, I was able to appreciate the difficulties involved in administering parapsychological tests to a participant who was bemushroomed or psilocybinized.
A few years later, members of the rock group The Grateful Dead volunteered to participate in a telepathy study during six shows in Port Chester, New York. At the time, I was director of a sleep and dream laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, and an English medium volunteered to attempt dreaming about an art print that would be chosen randomly during each of the concerts and would be projected on a large screen in back of the band. Directions to the audience and the name of the medium were also projected; however, they were not given the name of a second participant who was recording her dreams at home. Each of the concerts was attended by about 2,000 persons most of whom were under the influence of psychoactive substances when the instructions were given to them. The guesses made by the medium in our laboratory were more accurate than those given by the unknown participant. For example, when a painting of the seven spinal chakras was displayed, the medium reported dreams about “natural energy,” “an energy box,” and “a spinal column.”
A few experimental attempts have been made to elicit parapsychological phenomena through the controlled administration of LSD-type substances. Most of them were described as “pilot studies” and were conducted during the 1960s in various parts of the world. Specially designed decks of 25 cards containing five different symbols such as stars and circles were used in clairvoyance experiments by Whittlesey, Pahnke, Masters and Houston, Tinoco (in Brazil), Don (in Brazil), and two groups of Dutch psychologists. None of them produced statistically significant results, although Whittlesey’s group of 27 participants demonstrated lower variance during the LSD sessions than during the control sessions. One group of Dutch investigators, who utilized psilocybin, reported that the cards were guessed correctly more often during the psilocybin condition than during the control condition, but not at a significant level.
The other Dutch group conducted two clairvoyance experiments, one of which used marijuana that was “self-administered” to avoid legal problems; even so, four participants became nauseous and dropped out of the study. Under the influence of marijuana, the remaining group members obtained slightly higher scores but the investigators suggested the difference might have been due to the ratings given by the judges, one who had taken marijuana before beginning the judging task. The second clairvoyance experiment conducted by this group employed six participants who ingested psilocybin before they made their guesses as to the picture’s identity. A “buddy” system was used to deter the possibility of nausea or other complications. Out of the 12 attempts, there were 7 correct guesses, a significant result. However, this experiment did not include a control, comparison condition so there is no way of knowing whether psilocybin played a role in the group’s success. This group also designed a telepathy experiment, again using psilocybin. The overall results showed no difference between the psilocybin condition and the no-drug, control condition but the group’s psilocybin guesses were better when the picture displayed a positive emotion than when it was associated with a negative emotion. The results were the opposite in the control, comparison condition.
Puharich used emotionally-toned pictures rather than card symbols in a clairvoyance experiment involving amanita mushrooms. His 26 participants made significantly more correct guesses under the influence of the mushrooms than before or after the session. He attributed the results to the mushrooms’ activation of participants’ parasympathetic functions (for example, slow heart rate). However, psychoactive mushrooms can also stimulate rather than calm bodily functions, and so this explanation is inconclusive. Nevertheless, Puharich reported that one of his participants perfectly matched two sets of 20 unseen pictures in three seconds. Puharich also tested four Los Angeles newspaper reporters described as “skeptical”; they obtained similar results but with numbers rather than pictures. Once again, chance results were obtained before mushroom ingestion, significant results emerged during the mushroom session, and scoring returned to chance following the conclusion of the session. Unfortunately, this innovative experiment was published in a popular book rather than in a refereed journal, so the quality of the controls remains a matter of speculation.
The same criticism can be made of a telepathy study reported in a book by Masters and Houston whose LSD participants attempted to identify emotionally-charged images that had been prepared in advance, and administered toward the end of the session. Of the 62 participants tested, 48 approximated the image at least two times out of ten, while five participants’ verbal reports resembled the image at least seven times out of ten. One participant visualized “tossed seas” when the image was a Viking ship in a storm. The same participant reported “lush vegetation” when the image was a rain forest in the Amazon, “a camel” when the image was an Arab riding a camel, “the Alps” when the image was the Himalayas, and “a Negro picking cotton in a field” when the image was a pre-Civil War Southern plantation.
The best known and most highly regarded experiment was designed by two Italian investigators, Cavanna and Servadio. Color prints of emotionally-loaded photographic collages were prepared in a clairvoyance experiment that employed three participants, and both LSD (three dosage levels) and psilocybin conditions, as well as a placebo condition. Despite extensive screening, one of the participants had an anxiety attack during the first LSD session, even though the dosage was fairly low. Nevertheless, the participant returned to the study and 12 sessions were run for everyone. Their responses were compared to the color prints by five judges who generally agreed on the ratings given to each match. When compared to the placebo condition, the participants’ guesses during the LSD and psilocybin sessions were more accurate, especially during the low dose LSD condition. Indeed, no correct matches were obtained in any of the placebo sessions by any of the three participants. The overall results did not obtain statistical significance but one participant did unusually well. During a psilocybin session, he concentrated on an envelope containing a collage of a key combined with female breasts. His guess was, “a woman with bosoms and ornaments.” During an LSD session, he concentrated on an envelope containing a photograph of two hands, one large and one small; he guessed that the picture was “a hand; the five points of the huge hand come out.” The experimenters concluded that the major finding emerging from their work was the role of interpersonal relations, and sugggested that future experiments include personality assessment of both participants and experimenters.
Osis administered LSD to a number of practicing mediums who were given physical objects and asked to describe the owners. Most of the participants were so interested in the “esthetic pleasure” and the “philosophical knowledge” resulting from their LSD sessions that they had difficulty maintaining an interest in the parapsychological task. A problem common to all the experiments is the fact that imagery and feelings will not stand still. Just as a participant seeks to make an informed guess, the experience races on, and the event in question is compounded by the next event or series of events. Many of the researchers noted that participants had difficulty maintaining alertness, focus, and orientation to the task. Suggestions for future research include using experienced participants who are familiar with the effects of LSD, preceding the session with hypnosis during which time suggestions can be given to stabilize the task, and making greater use of anecdotal and clinical data by subjecting the verbal reports to content analysis.
Parapsychological research is extremely difficult to fund; thus, the modicum of financial support that is available has been directed to projects with major scientific payoffs and it is apparent that the past work with LSD-type substances does not qualify. In addition to the methodological problems that are obvious to readers of these reports, there has been an almost complete lack of follow-up, in which more rigorous studies would be designed. As a result, this research project is open to a variety of criticisms, even ridicule. In fact, conventional science rejects the very notion that its concepts of time, space, and energy have been challenged by the evidence emerging from parapsychological research, with or without the aid of psychoactive substances.
Nevertheless, these data are of value for what they can teach investigators about research design, about the phenomenology of the experimental sessions, and the possible neurological mechanisms of putative parapsychological experiences. Parapsychological data as a whole may not be convincing for many conventional scientists, but most of them now admit that reports of telepathic, clairvoyant, precognitive, and psychokinetic experiences are rarely the sign of severe mental disorder. For those whose mental health is at risk, Wulff and other investigators of mystical experiences have pointed out the therapeutic potential of these experiences, whether spontaneously reported or associated with psychoactive drugs, meditation, or some other technology.
The cultural belief systems, personality traits, and brain mechanisms that underlie these reports is a worthwhile area for scientific investigation and may well reveal dimensions of the human psyche that are currently obscure. To paraphrase William James, no account of the universe in its totality can be final that disregards these experiences. And as Albert Hofmann has reminded us, the healing of our planet depends upon an “existential experience of a deeper, self-encompassing reality.”
Sidney Cohen, a representative of mainstream American psychiatry who was also a pioneer LSD researcher, stated his conviction that “intuition, creativity, telepathic experience, prophecy – all can be understood as superior activities of brain-mind function.” This is the vision shared by Albert Hofmann who wrote that "in the LSD state the boundaries between the experiencing self and the outer world more or less disappear....Feedback between receiver and sender takes place. A portion of the self overflows into the outer world, into objects, which begin to live, to have another, a deeper meaning. In an auspicious case, the new ego feels blissfully united with the objects of the outer world and consequently also with its fellow beings. This experience of deep oneness with the exterior world can even intensify to a feeling of the self being one with the universe." All worthwhile scenarios need to be incarnated, to be brought from internal consciousness into external action and daily behavior. The exploration of the relation between LSD-type drugs and parapsychology, mind and matter, between subject and object, between the individual and the universe is an ongoing process. The discoveries, contributions, and reflections of Albert Hofmann have made a significant impact to this perennial quest.
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This paper was prepared for presentation at LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug, An International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann, 13-15 January, Basel, Switzerland. Gratitude is expressed to David Luke for the use of material from “Psychoactive Substances and Paranormal Phenomena,” a chapter prepared for the forthcoming 9th volume of Advances in Parapsychological Research and to the support of the Chair for the Study of Consciousness, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.