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Psychedelic Research: Past, Present, and Future

The use of psychedelic substances can be traced back for millennia, to the dawn of human history. Since time immemorial, plant materials containing powerful, consciousness-expanding compounds were used to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness or, more specifically, an important subgroup of them, which I call “holotropic” (Grof 2000). These plants have played an important role in shamanic practice, aboriginal healing ceremonies, rites of passage, mysteries of death and rebirth, and various other spiritual traditions. The ancient and native cultures using psychedelic materials held them in great esteem and considered them to be sacraments, “flesh of the gods” (Schultes, Hofmann, and Raetsch 2001).

Human groups, which had at their disposal psychedelic plants, took advantage of their entheogenic effects (entheogenic means literally “awakening the divine within”) and made them the principal vehicles of their ritual and spiritual life. The preparations made from these plants mediated for these people experiential contact with the archetypal dimensions of reality–deities, mythological realms, power animals, and numinous forces and aspects of nature.

Another important area where states induced by psychedelics played a crucial role was diagnosing and healing of various disorders. Anthropological literature also contains many reports indicating that native cultures have used psychedelics for enhancement of intuition and extrasensory perception for a variety of divinatory, as well as practical purposes, such as finding lost persons and objects, obtaining information about people in remote locations, and following the movement of the game that these people hunted. In addition, psychedelic experiences served as important sources of artistic inspiration, providing ideas for rituals, paintings, sculptures, and songs.

In the history of Chinese medicine, reports about psychedelic substances can be traced back about 3,000 years. The legendary divine potion referred to as haoma in the ancient Persian Zend Avesta and as soma in the Indian Vedas was used by the Indo-Iranian tribes millenia ago. The mystical states of consciousness induced by soma were very likely the principal source of the Vedic and Hindu religion. Preparations from different varieties of hemp have been smoked and ingested under various names: ­hashish, charas, bhang, ganja, kif, and marijuana –in Asia, in Africa, and in the Caribbean area for recreation, pleasure, and during religious ceremonies. They represented an important sacrament for such diverse groups as the Indian Brahmans, certain orders of Sufis, ancient Scythians, and the Jamaican Rastafarians.

Ceremonial use of various psychedelic substances also has a long history in Central America. Highly effective mind-altering plants were well known in several Pre-Columbian Indian cultures–among the Aztecs, Mayans, and Olmecs. The most famous of these are the Mexican cactus peyote (Anhalonium Lewinii), the sacred mushroom teonanacatl (Psilocybe mexicana) and ololiuqui, or morning glory seeds (Rivea corymbosa). These materials have been used as sacraments until this day by several Mexican Indian tribes (Huichols, Mazatecs, Cora people, and others), and by the Native American Church.

The famous South American yajé or ayahuasca is a decoction from a jungle liana (Banisteriopsis caapi) with other plant additives. The Amazonian area is also known for a variety of psychedelic snuffs (Virola callophylla, Piptadenia peregrina). Preparations from the bark of the shrub iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) have been used by African tribes in lower dosage as a stimulant during lion hunts and long canoe trips and in higher doses as a ritual sacrament. The above list represents only a small fraction of psychedelic compounds that have been used over many centuries in various countries of the world. The impact that the experiences encountered in these states had on the spiritual and cultural life of pre-industrial societies has been enormous.

The long history of ritual use of psychedelic plants contrasts sharply with a relatively short history of scientific efforts to identify their psychoactive alkaloids, prepare them in a pure form, and to study their effects. The first psychedelic substance that was synthetized in a chemically pure form and systematically explored under laboratory conditions was mescaline, the active alkaloid from the peyote cactus. Clinical experiments conducted with this substance in the first three decades of the twentieth century focused on the phenomenology of the mescaline experience and its interesting effects on artistic perception and creative expression (Vondrá?ek 1935, Nevole 1947, 1949). Surprisingly, they did not reveal its therapeutic, heuristic, and entheogenic potential of this substance. Kurt Beringer, author of the influential book Der Meskalinrausch (Mescaline Inebriation) published in 1927, concluded that mescaline induced a toxic psychosis (Beringer 1927).

After these pioneering clinical experiments with mescaline, very little research was done in this fascinating problem area until Albert Hofmann’s 1942 epoch-making accidental intoxication and serendipitous discovery of the psychedelic properties of LSD-25, or diethylamid of lysergic acid. After the publication of the first clinical paper on LSD by Walter A. Stoll in the late 1940’s (Stoll 1947), this new semisynthetic ergot derivative, active in incredibly minute quantities of micrograms or gammas (millionths of a gram), became practically overnight a sensation in the world of science.

The discovery of powerful psychoactive effects of miniscule dosages of LSD started what has been called a “golden era of psychopharmacology.” During a relatively short period of time, the joint efforts of biochemists, pharmacologists, neurophysiologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists succeeded in laying the foundations of a new scientific discipline that can be referred to as “pharmacology of consciousness.” The active substances from several remaining psychedelic plants were chemically identified and prepared in chemically pure form. Following the discovery of the psychedelic effects of LSD-25, Albert Hofmann identified the active principles of the Mexican magic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana), psilocybin and psilocin, and that of ololiuqui, or morning glory seeds (Ipomoea violacea), which turned out to be monoethylamid of lysergic acid (LAE-32), closely related to LSD-25.

The armamentarium of psychedelic substances was further enriched by psychoactive derivatives of tryptamine–DMT (dimethyl-tryptamine), DET (diethyl-tryptamine), and DPT (dipropyltryptamine)–synthetized and studied by the Budapest group of chemists headed by Stephen Szara, the active principle from the African shrub Tabernanthe iboga, ibogaine, and the pure alkaloid from ayahuasca’s main ingredient Banisteriopsis caapi, known under the names harmaline, yageine, and telepathine had already been isolated and chemically identified earlier in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, a wide range of psychedelic alkaloids in pure form was available to researchers. It was now possible to study their properties in the laboratory and explore the phenomenology of their clinical effects and their therapeutic potential. The revolution triggered by Albert Hofmann’s serendipitous discovery of LSD was underway.

During this exciting era, LSD remained the center of attention of researchers. Never before had a single substance held so much promise in such a wide variety of fields of interest. For psychopharmacologists and neurophysiologists, the discovery of LSD meant the beginning of a golden era of research that could solve many puzzles concerning neuroreceptors, synaptic transmitters, chemical antagonisms, and the intricate biochemical interactions underlying cerebral processes.

Experimental psychiatrists saw LSD as a unique means for creating a laboratory model for naturally occurring functional, or endogenous, psychoses. They hoped that the “experimental psychosis,” induced by miniscule dosages of this substance, could provide unparalleled insights into the nature of these mysterious disorders and open new avenues for their treatment. It was suddenly conceivable that the brain or other parts of the body could under certain circumstances produce small quantities of a substance with similar effects as LSD. This meant that disorders like schizophrenia would not be mental diseases, but metabolic aberrations that could be counteracted by specific chemical intervention. The promise of this research was nothing less that the fulfillment of the dream of biologically oriented clinicians, the Holy Grail of psychiatry–a test-tube cure for schizophrenia.

LSD was also highly recommended as an extraordinary unconventional teaching device that would make it possible for clinical psychiatrists, psychologists, medical students, and nurses to spend a few hours in a world similar to that of their patients and as a result of it to understand them better, be able to communicate with them more effectively, and hopefully be more successful in treating them. Thousands of mental health professionals took advantage of this unique opportunity. These experiments brought surprising and astonishing results. They not only provided deep insights into the world of psychiatric patients, but also revolutionized the understanding of the nature and dimensions of the human psyche and consciousness.

Many professionals involved in these experiments discovered that the current model, limiting the psyche to postnatal biography and the Freudian individual unconscious, was superficial and inadequate. My own new map of the psyche that emerged out of this research added two large transbiographical domains–the perinatal level, closely related to the memory of biological birth, and the transpersonal level, harboring the historical and archetypal domains of the collective unconscious as envisioned by C. C. Jung (Grof 1975, Jung 1959). Early experiments with LSD also showed that the sources of emotional and psychosomatic disorders were not limited to traumatic memories from childhood and infancy, as traditional psychiatrists assumed, but that their roots reached much deeper into the psyche, into the perinatal and transpersonal regions (Grof 2000). This surprising revelation was accompanied by the discovery of new powerful therapeutic mechanisms operating on these deep levels of the psyche.

Using LSD as a catalyst, it became possible to extend the range of applicability of psychotherapy to categories of patients that previously had been difficult to reach–sexual deviants, alcoholics, narcotic drug addicts, and criminal recidivists (Grof 2001). Particularly valuable and promising were the early efforts to use LSD psychotherapy in the work with terminal cancer patients. Research on this population showed that LSD was able to relieve severe pain, often even in those patients who had not responded to medication with narcotics. In a large percentage of these patients, it was also possible to ease or even eliminate difficult emotional and psychosomatic symptoms, such as depression, general tension, and insomnia, alleviate the fear of death, increase the quality of their life during the remaining days, and positively transform the experience of dying (Cohen 1965, Kast and Collins 1966, Grof 2006).

For historians and critics of art, the LSD experiments provided extraordinary new insights into the psychology and psychopathology of art, particularly paintings and sculptures of various native, so-called “primitive” cultures and psychiatric patients, as well as various modern movements, such as abstractionism, impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and fantastic realism (Roubí?ek 1961). For professional painters who participated in LSD research, the psychedelic session often marked a radical change in their artistic expression. Their imagination became much richer, their colors more vivid, and their style considerably freer. They could also often reach into deep recesses of their unconscious psyche and tap archetypal sources of inspiration. On occasion, people who had never painted before were able to produce extraordinary pieces of art.

LSD experimentation brought also fascinating observations, which were of great interest to spiritual teachers and scholars of comparative religion. The mystical experiences frequently observed in LSD sessions offered a radically new understanding of a wide variety of phenomena from the spiritual domain, including shamanism, the rites of passage, the ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, the Eastern religions and philosophies, and the mystical traditions of the world (Forte 1997, Roberts 2001, Grof 1998).

The fact that LSD and other psychedelic substances were able to trigger a broad range of spiritual experiences became the subject of heated scientific discussions. They revolved around the fascinating problem concerning the nature and value of this “instant” or “chemical” mysticism” (Grof 1998). As Walter Pahnke demonstrated in his famous Good Friday experiment, mystical experiences induced by psychedelics are indistinguishable from those described in mystical literature (Pahnke 1963). This finding, that was recently confirmed by a meticulous study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University (Griffith et al. 2006), has important theoretical and legal implications.

Psychedelic research involving LSD, psilocybine, mescaline, and the tryptamine derivatives seemed to be well on its way to fulfill all the above promises and expectations when it was suddenly interrupted by the unsupervised mass experimentation of the young generation in the USA and other Western countries. In the infamous Harvard affair, psychology professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert lost their academic posts and had to leave the school after their overeager proselytizing of LSD’s promise. The ensuing repressive measures of administrative, legal, and political nature had very little effect on street use of LSD and other psychedelics, but they drastically terminated legitimate clinical research. However, while the problems associated with this development were blown out of proportion by sensation-hunting journalists, the possible risks were not the only reason why LSD and other psychedelics were rejected by the Euro-American mainstream culture. An important contributing factor was also the attitude of technological societies toward holotropic states of consciousness.

As I mentioned earlier, all ancient and pre-industrial societies held these states in high esteem, whether they were induced by psychedelic plants or some of the many powerful non-drug “technologies of the sacred”–fasting, sleep deprivation, social and sensory isolation, dancing, chanting, music, drumming, or physical pain. Members of these social groups had the opportunity to repeatedly experience holotropic states of consciousness during their lifetime in a variety of sacred contexts. By comparison, the industrial civilization has pathologized holotropic states, rejected or even outlawed the contexts and tools that can facilitate them, and developed effective means of suppressing them when they occur spontaneously, Because of the resulting naiveté and ignorance concerning holotropic states, Western culture was unprepared to accept and incorporate the extraordinary mind-altering properties and power of LSD and other psychedelics.

The sudden emergence of the Dionysian element from the depths of the unconscious and the heights of the superconscious was too threatening for the Euro-American society. In addition, the irrational and transrational nature of psychedelic experiences seriously challenged the very foundations of the materialistic worldview of Western science. The existence and nature of these experiences could not be explained in the context of mainstream theories and seriously undermined the metaphysical assumptions concerning priority of matter over consciousness on which Western culture is built. It also threatened the leading myth of the industrial world by showing that true fulfillment does not come from achievement of material goals but from a profound mystical experience.

It was not just the culture at large that was unprepared for the psychedelic experience; this was also true for the helping professions. For most psychiatrists and psychologists, psychotherapy meant disciplined face-to-face discussions or free-associating on the couch. The intense emotions and dramatic physical manifestations in psychedelic sessions appeared to them to be too close to what they were used to associate with psychopathology. It was hard for them to imagine that such states could be healing and transformative. As a result, they did not trust the reports about the extraordinary power of psychedelic psychotherapy coming from those colleagues who had enough courage to take the chances and do psychedelic therapy, or from their clients.

To complicate the situation even further, many of the phenomena occurring in psychedelic sessions could not be understood within the context of theories dominating academic thinking. The possibility of reliving birth or episodes from embryonic life, obtaining accurate information about world history and mythology from the collective unconscious, experiencing archetypal realities and karmic memories, or perceiving remote events in out-of-body states, were simply too fantastic to be believable for an average professional. Yet those of us who had the chance to work with LSD and were willing to radically change our theoretical understanding of the psyche and practical strategy of therapy were able to see and appreciate the enormous potential of psychedelics, both as therapeutic tools and as substances of extraordinary heuristic value.

In one of my early books, I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology and medicine or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression. These substances function as unspecific amplifiers that increase the cathexis (energetic charge) associated with the deep unconscious contents of the psyche and make them available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.

Naturally, the tools of this power carry with them greater risks than more conservative and far less effective tools currently accepted and used by mainstream psychiatry, such as verbal psychotherapy or tranquillizing medication. Clinical research has shown that these risks can be minimized by responsible use and careful control of the set and setting. The safety of psychedelic therapy when conducted in a clinical setting was demonstrated by Sidney Cohen’s study based on information drawn from more than 25,000 psychedelic sessions. According to Cohen, LSD therapy appeared to be much safer than many other procedures that had been at one time or another routinely used in psychiatric treatment, such as electroshock therapy, insulin coma therapy, and psychosurgery (Cohen 1960). However, legislators responding to unsupervised mass use of psychedelics did not get their information from scientific publications, but from the stories of sensation-hunting journalists. The legal and administrative sanctions against psychedelics did not deter lay experimentation, but they all but terminated legitimate scientific research of these substances.

For those of us who had the privilege to explore and experience the extraordinary potential of psychedelics, this was a tragic loss for psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy. We felt that these unfortunate developments wasted what was probably the single most important opportunity in the history of these disciplines. Had it been possible to avoid the unnecessary mass hysteria and continue responsible research of psychedelics, they could have undoubtedly radically transformed the theory and practice of psychiatry. I believe that the observations from this research have the potential to initiate a revolution in the understanding of the human psyche and of consciousness comparable to the conceptual cataclysm that modern physicists experienced in the first three decades in relation to their theories concerning matter. This new knowledge could become an integral part of a comprehensive new scientific paradigm of the twenty-first century.

At present, when more than three decades elapsed since official research with psychedelics was effectively terminated, I can attempt to evaluate the past history of these substances and glimpse into their future. After having personally conducted over the last fifty years more than four thousand psychedelic sessions, I have developed great awe and respect for these compounds and their enormous positive, as well as negative potential.

They are powerful tools and like any tool they can be used skillfully, ineptly, or destructively. The result will be critically dependent on the set and setting. The question whether LSD is a phenomenal medicine or a devil’s drug makes as little sense as a similar question asked about the positive or negative potential of a knife. Naturally, we will get a very different report from a surgeon who bases his or her judgment on successful operations and from the police chief who investigates murders committed with knives in back alleys of New York City. A housewife would see the knife primarily as a useful kitchen tool and an artist would employ it in carving wooden sculptures. It would make little sense to judge the usefulness and dangers of a knife by watching children who play with it without adequate maturity and skill. Similarly, the image of LSD will vary whether we focus on the results of responsible clinical or spiritual use, naive and careless mass self-experimentation of the young generation, or deliberately destructive experiments of the military circles or secret police.

Until it is clearly understood that the results of the administration of psychedelics are critically influenced by the factors of set and setting, there is no hope for rational decisions in regard to psychedelic drug policies. I firmly believe that psychedelics can be used in such a way that the benefits far outweigh the risks. This has been amply proven by millennia of safe ritual and spiritual use of psychedelics by generations of shamans, individual healers, and entire aboriginal cultures. However, the Western industrial civilization has so far abused nearly all its discoveries and there is not much hope that psychedelics will make an exception, unless we rise as a group to a higher level of consciousness and emotional maturity.

Whether or not psychedelics will return into psychiatry and will again become part of the therapeutic armamentarium is a complex problem and its solution will probably be determined not only by the results of scientific research, but also by a variety of political, legal, economic, and mass-psychological factors. However, I believe that Western society is at present much better equipped to accept and assimilate psychedelics than it was in the 1950s. At the time when psychiatrists and psychologists started to experiment with LSD, psychotherapy was limited to verbal exchanges between therapist and clients. Intense emotions and active behavior were referred to as “acting-out” and were seen as violations of basic therapeutic rules.

Psychedelic sessions were on the other side of the spectrum, evoking dramatic emotions, psychomotor excitement, and vivid perceptual changes. They thus seemed to be more like states that psychiatrists considered pathological and tried to suppress by all means than conditions to which one would attribute therapeutic potential. This was reflected in the terms “hallucinogens,” “delirogens,” “psychotomimetics,” and “experimental psychoses,” used initially for psychedelics and the states induced by them. In any case, psychedelic sessions resembled more scenes from anthropological movies about healing rituals of “primitive” cultures and other aboriginal ceremonies than those expected in a psychiatrist’s or psychotherapist’s office.

In addition, many of the experiences and observations from psychedelic sessions seemed to seriously challenge the image of the human psyche and of the universe developed by Newtonian-Cartesian science and considered to be accurate and definitive descriptions of “objective reality.” Psychedelic subjects reported experiential identification with other people, animals, and various aspects of nature, during which they gained access to new information about areas about which they previously had no intellectual knowledge. The same was true about experiential excursions into the lives of their human and animal ancestors, as well as racial, collective, and karmic memories.

On occasion, this new information was drawn from experiences involving reliving of biological birth and memories of prenatal life, encounters with archetypal beings, and visits to mythological realms of different cultures of the world. In out-of-body experiences, experimental subjects were able to witness and accurately describe remote events occurring in locations that were outside of the range of their senses. None of these happenings were considered possible in the context of traditional materialistic science, and yet, in psychedelic sessions, they were observed frequently. This naturally caused deep conceptual turmoil and confusion in the minds of conventionally trained experimenters. Under these circumstances, many professionals chose to shy away from this area to preserve their respectable scientific world-view and professional reputation and to protect their common sense and sanity.

The last three decades have brought many revolutionary changes that have profoundly influenced the climate in the world of psychotherapy. Humanistic and transpersonal psychology have developed powerful experiential techniques that emphasize deep regression, direct expression of intense emotions, and bodywork leading to release of physical energies. Among these new approaches to self-exploration are Gestalt practice, bioenergetics and other neo-Reichian methods, primal therapy, rebirthing, and holotropic breathwork. The inner experiences and outer manifestations, as well as therapeutic strategies, in these therapies bear a great similarity to those observed in psychedelic sessions. These non-drug therapeutic strategies involve not only a similar spectrum of experiences, but also comparable conceptual challenges. As a result, for therapists practicing along these lines, the introduction of psychedelics would represent the next logical step rather than dramatic change in their practice.

Moreover, the Newtonian-Cartesian thinking in science, which in the 1960s enjoyed great authority and popularity, has been progressively undermined by astonishing developments in a variety of disciplines. This has happened to such an extent that an increasing number of scientists feel an urgent need for an entirely different world-view, a new scientific paradigm. Salient examples of this development are philosophical implications of quantum-relativistic physics (Capra 1975, Goswami 1995), David Bohm’s theory of holomovement (Bohm 1980), Karl Pribram’s holographic theory of the brain (Pribram 1971), Ilya Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures (Prigogine 1980), Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields (Sheldrake 1981), Gregory Bateson’s brilliant synthesis of systems and information theory, cybernetics, anthropology, and psychology (Bateson 1979), and particularly Ervin Laszlo’s concept of the PSI field (akashic field), his connectivity hypothesis, and his “integral theory of everything” (Laszlo 1993, 2004). It is very encouraging to see that all these new developments that are in irreconcilable conflict with traditional science seem to be compatible with the findings of psychedelic research and with transpersonal psychology. This list would not be complete without mentioning the remarkable effort of Ken Wilber to create a comprehensive synthesis of a variety of scientific disciplines and perennial philosophy (Wilber 2000).

Even more encouraging than the changes in the general scientific climate is the fact that, in a few cases, researchers of the younger generation in the United States, Switzerland, and other countries have in recent years been able to obtain official permission to start programs of psychedelic therapy involving LSD, psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), methylene-dioxy-methamphetamine (MMDA), and ketamine. I hope that this is the beginning of a renaissance of interest in psychedelic research that will eventually return these extraordinary tools into the hands of responsible therapists.


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For more information, visit Stanislav Grof’s website at

Photo by Ayahuasca San Francisco, courtesty of Creative Commons License.

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