From Breaking Convention edited by Cameron Adams, David Luke, Anna Waldstein, Ben Sessa and David King, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2014. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
At the beginning of the 1950s the developed world began in earnest its psychedelic research era. Since then these profoundly mind-altering substances have been inextricably associated with paranormal experiences—such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and out-of-body experiences—by many of the researchers who have studied their effects. Currently however, virtually no research is being conducted in this area despite the recent revival of research into the potential therapeutic benefit of psychedelics in humans. This paper briefly discusses some of the author’s research to date in this field: a review of the literature on parapsychology (the psychological study of apparently paranormal processes) and psychedelics, a survey of paranormal experiences associated with different psychoactive substances, and correlation of self-reports of the number of consumed psychedelics with performance on a precognition task.
The word psychedelic, meaning ‘mind-manifesting,’ was created by Dr. Humphry Osmond in correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1956. Four years earlier Osmond had published an article in the Hibbert Journal with his colleague John Smythies in which they proposed that a new theory of mind was needed that could account for both mescaline experiences and what they considered to be the scientifically-proven fact of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Huxley read this article and requested that Osmond, who like Huxley hailed from Surrey in England but lived in North America, should visit Huxley and give him mescaline.
Huxley then catalysed the popularisation of psychedelics with the publication of The Doors of Perception in 1954. In the book, not only did Huxley eloquently describe his experience of mescaline, disappearing beautifully into the mystical folds in his trousers, but he also proposed a nascent neurochemical model of ESP. He suggested that the French philosopher Henri Bergson was right to propose that the brain’s primary function was to filter out all the excess sensory data that we do not attend to. Otherwise, this information would overwhelm the conscious mind with a mass of information that was ordinarily irrelevant for the organism’s survival.
However, building on Bergson’s notion, Huxley added that substances such as mescaline serve to override the brain’s ‘reducing valve’ that filters out this sensory data. Under such psychedelic disinhibition of the brain’s inhibiting function, the mind is thereby capable of potentially remembering anything it has ever experienced and sensing everything within its immediate environment. Furthermore, it is also able to access the entirety of information available in the universe, even forwards and backwards in time. Such mystical or paranormal feats are known as clairvoyance, precognition and telepathy, and are collectively termed extra- sensory perception (ESP), or, more recently, ‘psi.’
To illustrate this psychic psychedelic process, Huxley took the title of his book from a quote by the English mystic, William Blake—“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Elsewhere in the USA, just prior to the publication of The Doors of Perception in 1954, Gordon Wasson was recently back from his first trip to Mexico where he discovered both an active mushroom cult and the identity of their sacrament as Psilocybe mexicana. The Mazatec shaman, Don Aurelio, (who Wasson worked with before meeting the more famous Maria Sabina) held a mushroom ceremony for him and told him two important facts about his son in the US that neither of them could otherwise have known. Both were ultimately true, although one was still yet to happen, thereby demonstrating Don Aurelio’s accurate clairvoyance and precognition under the influence of psilocybin. Yet, as far as scientific evidence goes, this is far from conclusive.
Similarly, it was in the mid-1950’s that LSD began doing the rounds. About 10 years earlier Albert Hofmann had discovered the exceptional psychological effects of LSD and had the first-ever LSD-induced out-of-body experience when he found himself hovering above his body and assumed that he had died. But these two tales of exceptional human experience from our foremost psychedelic pioneers are just the opening of the rabbit hole.
Anthropology, particularly from the New World, has long informed us that the people who traditionally use psychedelic plants and potions do so specifically for ‘magical’ purposes, such as ESP, psychic diagnosis and healing.
More compelling yet, there is an abundance of stories of anthropologists either witnessing or experiencing first-hand the occurrence of apparently paranormal phenomena with the use of psychoactive plants and fungi: peyote among the Huichol indians, psilocybin-containing mushrooms with the Mazatec, fly agaric mushrooms with the Ojibwa, datura in India, pituri in Australia, and practically all known psychedelic plants in all regions of the world.
Of particular importance in this equation is ayahuasca, which is so often accompanied by reports of psychic ability that when one of its psychoactive constituents, harmine, was isolated at the beginning of the 20th century it was named ‘telepathine.’ It is also interesting to note that, conversely, there is a serious lack of similar paranormal reports with the non-visionary psychoactive plants that have also been in use for centuries, such as coffee, coca, and cacao.
These numerous reports collected by anthropologists and from the early psychedelic explorers soon began surfacing among psychotherapists as well once these substances started seeping out of the labs and into the clinics. As just one example, Stan Grof, who we can probably credit as being the leading expert on psychedelic psychotherapy, reported observing past-life recall, out-of-body experiences, and ESP on a daily basis.
Thinking there might be something magical about these medicines that has been largely overlooked I conducted a comparison of spontaneous ESP phenomena occurring, with good supporting evidence in the therapy room, either with or without psychedelics. Reports of spontaneous ESP occurring within ordinary psychotherapy were fairly rare, although definitely evident, but they were seemingly more frequently reported by psychedelic psychotherapists during the 1960s. Substantiating these anecdotal reports a number of surveys have been conducted that have consistently found a positive relationship between the reporting of having had a paranormal experience and the use of psychedelics, with heavier users having more experiences. What the surveys also show is that between 18–83% (depending on the type of experience) of those using cannabis and/or psychedelics also reported ESP experiences occurring whilst actually under the influence. There is very good reason to believe that these substances can induce paranormal experiences, regardless of whether these experiences are genuine or not.
A survey conducted by myself and my colleague, Dr. Marios Kittenis, extended this research and explored the taxonomy of these phenomena to try and identify which drugs related to which experiences in particular. While psychedelics in general were as- sociated with a range of phenomena, we found that particular substances were more readily associated with certain experiences than others. For instance, entity encounter experiences were very common under DMT, telepathy was common under cannabis and DXM, out-of-body experiences typified ketamine, and plant spirit encounters occurred particularly with psilocybin but also with a host of other psychedelic flora.
Since the prohibition of psychedelics in the late 1960s most of this field of research, which I like to call ‘parapsychopharmacology,’ has been conducted through surveys. Yet these provide very little evidential value for the genuine occurrence of psi. Fortunately, the notion of using psychedelics to investigate parapsychology was considered a viable method just prior to prohibition and about a dozen or more controlled experiments were conducted. Walter Pahnke, for instance, who conducted the original Good Friday experiment some 50 years ago and published his findings in the International Journal of Parapsychology, also conducted an ESP experiment with LSD. The results of this experiment were not significant overall. However, Stanislav Grof was one of the par- ticipants and had a string of increasingly improbable direct hits on the target symbol, determining a randomly selected target beyond the expectation of chance probability. Grof, explained that:
When I got the third correct answer in a row, the feelings [of a universe where no laws of time and space exist] were so powerful that I could not continue. The reason for discontinuation of the ESP experiment was a strange mixture of a conviction that it was absurd to test the obvious and, on the other hand, a metaphysical fear of confusion that would follow if I had to give up the usual concept of time and space and with it all the related reference points we feel so secure with.
Overall, the catalogue of ‘pharma-psi’ experiments from the sixties had some promising findings, which were in direct proportion to the sophistication of the methodology. Studies that used boring experimental procedures (such as massively iterative card-guessing tasks, sometimes for hours on end) and psychedelically-inexperienced participants returned poor results, while those that used engaging tasks and experienced trippers got the best outcomes. However, most of these experiments lacked the stringent degree of control expected by today’s standards and so also have limited evidential value.
What is needed is a series of well-controlled and methodologically-advanced experiments to more fully explore the capability of psychedelics to induce psi. I suggest that this research is now both timely, given the growing renaissance in psychedelic research, and extremely worthwhile. For instance, my own research into precognition, using a methodologically-rigorous design with 100 participants, found that precognitive ability correlated positively with the reported number of psychedelics consumed by the individuals in the sample (rs =.27, p =.008, two-tailed). Although indirect, this adds further support for the notion of psi-inducing psychedelics.
Given the enormous difficulties still evident in attempting to get funding and approval to conduct research administrating psychedelics directly, let alone when parapsychology is involved, researchers in the past have considered various alternatives. One proposal is to conduct basic ESP research, inviting participants who have just partaken of mind-expanding substances, along with those who haven’t, and testing their abilities. The parapsychologist Charles Tart proposed conducting such ‘drop-out drop-in’ experiments shortly after prohibition to circumvent the difficulties in getting legal and ethical approval for such work.
Such research techniques are now evident in non-parapsychological psychedelic research, but have yet to be used in parapsychology. Alternatively, it would be preferable to conduct direct psi experimentation through the administration of psychedelic substances, although probably with those substances which are still legal and have been reported to induce ESP, such as dextromethorphine. Yet there still remain many obstacles to such work. Perhaps the greatest opportunity to conduct research at the present time would be to hitch an ESP experiment on the back of an existing psychedelic research program. We would be very happy to hear from any researcher interested in collaborating on this. As another alternative the use of hypnosis to re-induce psychedelic states could offer a novel drug-free methodology.
Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated by exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these drugs. Rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species and for understanding reality itself are deeply profound. Huxley’s nascent notion of psychic abilities becoming available through the psychedelic inhibition of the brain’s reducing valve, which opens up awareness to an infinite field of information, is now quietly gaining some credibility. Recent human experiments show that the serotonergic effect of psychedelic tryptamines can inhibit the ‘sensory gating’ function of the brain thereby opening up the flood gates of information to the mind and expanding one’s sensory awareness. Parapsychopharmacological research of this nature could tell us a great deal about the neurochemistry of apparently psychic abilities, the experience of which has probably been observed with these substances for millennia.
It is an exceptional shame that since prohibition psychedelic researchers have veered away from parapsychological research and, vice versa, parapsychologists have shied away from psychedelic research. Most likely this is because of the position of both of these fields at the fringes of mainstream science and the fear of jeopardising one’s insecure but legitimate positions by dabbling in an even more taboo field of research to one’s own. Given the widening acceptance of parapsychology within mainstream academia, in the UK at least, and with the new renaissance dawning in psychedelic research globally, such an interest shouldn’t have to be considered as double career suicide anymore. Rather, the kind of ontological questions being asked through the research of parapsychopharmacology appear to be fundamental to our very sense of reality and should deserve special attention. And if philosophical prejudice appears to be in danger of keeping us from investigating such a topic it would seem wise to remember the words of Haldane, “my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”