LSD's discovery by Dr. Albert Hofmann in 1938 set in motion two decades of scientific and corporate research on the drug's usefulness to treat mental health disorders including schizophrenia, alcoholism and narcotic addiction and depression and anxiety in the terminally ill. (1) The Swiss laboratory from which the drug was synthesized provided LSD free to research scientists until 1966.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, both the CIA and the US Army conducted large-scale, secret experiments with the drug using human subjects to study its potential as a mind controlling agent and to facilitate interrogations.
At Harvard, Dr. Timothy Leary researched LSD as a tool to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Eventually, his pursuits became so controversial they led to his dismissal from the university and marginalizing of his research findings.
LSD's high profile in the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960's led to its US ban in 1967 and in other countries shortly thereafter. The consequent lack of legal availability of the drug effectively ended sanctioned academic research, and sent those wishing to continue this line of study underground. Some legal, academic research experiments on the effects and mechanisms of LSD continued, but rarely involved human subjects. (2)
Nearly every early
culture used certain naturally occurring compounds for medicinal and/or
religious ritual purposes, for example peyote and psilocybin mushrooms
by native North Americans, fermented beverages and cannabis by
Europeans and the fly agaric mushroom by Asians. Today
these psychoactive botanicals or natural compounded substances are
still in use, for example ibogaine - a root, used by the Bitwi
These "medicines" are typically held in great reverence by their users. Mythological significance is imparted to discovery and history of their use. Often, the "recipe" or method of compounding the drug for ingestion is complex and strictly guarded and passed down through generations of medicine men or shamans.
Use may be steeped in ritual, for tribal initiation rites or festivals, and may be accompanied by ceremony, dance, song, music, chanting, or other activities that enhance or supplement the trance like altered state of consciousness. A period of fasting or practicing of other austerities may be fulfilled before partaking of the substance.
Current religions use such compounds as a sacrament in their worship ceremonies, including the Native American Church (psilocybin), Santo Daime (ayahuasca) and Bitwi (ibogaine).
Enlightenment or New Age (2a) type experimentation occurs using these substances and manufactured hallucinogens today, presumably for consciousness expansion and to bring about meditative states. User intentions may vary, with a fine line separating those seeking genuine transcendence or religious experience from curiosity seekers or recreational users.
In an effort to legitimize their use for enlightenment purposes, a new term was coined in 1979 to replace psychedelic - the new term is entheogen (2b). Literally it means "God-within" or "God-inspired," or "that which generates God (or godly inspiration) within a person". The meanings was formally defined by Ruck et al.: In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens. (3)
The most renowned research of hallucinogenic drugs and religious mysticism was conducted in the early 1960s by Walter Pahnke for his 1963 doctoral thesis in Religion and Society at Harvard. Twenty Christian theology students participated in an extended Good Friday religious service conducted at Marsh Chapel of Boston University, half of the participants were medicated with the hallucinogen psilocybin.
Tape recordings were produced of the experiment, and quantitative surveys as well as follow-up interviews were conducted immediately and over the course of six following months. The survey rated participants' responses based on a 9 item mystical typology developed by Pahnke. The conditions describing mystical experience were structured by the investigator to capture "the universal phenomena of the mystical experience, whether considered "religious" or not." The events addressed included:
1. Internal and external unity (internal meaning loss of usual sense impressions and loss of self without becoming unconscious, and external, that the observer feels that the usual separation between himself and an external object - inanimate or animates - is no longer present in a basic sense; yet the subject still knows that on another level, at the same time, he and the objects are separate)
2. Transcendence of time and space
3. Deeply felt positive mood
4. Sense of sacredness
5. Objectivity and reality (insightful knowledge or illumination is felt at an intuitive, non rational level and gained by direct experience; along with the authoritative nature of the experience, or the certainty that such knowledge is truly real, in contrast to the feeling that the experience is a subjective delusion)
6. Paradoxically (accurate descriptions and even rational interpretations of the mystical experience tend to be logically contradictory when strictly analyzed)
7. Alleged ineffability (in spite of attempts to relate or write about the mystical experience, mystics insist either that words fail to describe it adequately or that the experience is beyond words)
9. Persisting positive changes in attitude and behavior (3a)
Pahnke's psilocybin testers achieved much higher scores in each category versus the control subjects; however, they did not report consistently high scores for each phenomenon, suggesting a lack of "completeness" to their mystical state. Follow-up interviews left the experimenter with the impression, "that the experience had made a profound impact (especially in terms of religious feeling and thinking) on the lives of eight out of ten of the subjects who had been given psilocybin. Although the psilocybin experience was unique and different from the "ordinary" reality of their everyday lives, these subjects felt that this experience had motivated them to appreciate more deeply the meaning of their lives, to gain more depth and authenticity in ordinary living, and to rethink their philosophies of life and values." (4, 5)
The original research was
reviewed some 25 years later. Rev. Mike Young, one of the student
subjects, recalls, "Rick Doblin, a psychology student at
A study recently published in Psychopharmacology represents the first new research on human subjects in over forty years which addresses relationships between psychedelic drugs and mystical or religious experiences. Roland Griffiths, a John Hopkins neuroscientist, and others conducted a double-blind controlled experiment with 36 adult participants to gauge mystical experiences achieved using psilocybin, the active ingredient in psilocybin mushrooms.
The experiment was remarkable mainly because it heralded a new generation of psychedelic research after four decades of stagnation; but also because its careful design and execution anticipated possible challenges in administering psilocybin.
The subjects were recruited for a “study of states of consciousness brought about by a naturally occurring psychoactive substance used sacramentally in some cultures.” 36 participants, who met medical and psychiatric health requirements and had no history of hallucinogenic drug use, were selected from 135 respondents. Participant average age was 46 years, they were well educated and all indicated participating, at least monthly, in religious or spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation, religious services, church choir or educational or discussion groups. They received no remuneration and their motivation for participation was described as "curiosity about the effects of psilocybin and the opportunity for extensive self reflection in the context of both the day long drug sessions and the meetings with the monitors that occurred between sessions."
The volunteers completed a variety of questionnaires on the test day, a hallucinogen rating scale, an addiction research center inventory scale and a test to assess altered states of consciousness, modeled on both the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire (utilized in the Good Friday Experiment) and the Hood Mysticism Scale (which had not been previously utilized to evaluate drug experiences.) Responses to the Mysticism Scale and State of Conscious Test were "significantly higher" after psilocybin than after the control, with 22 of 36 volunteers achieving a complete mystical experience after psilocybin, while only 4 of 36 did so under control conditions.
Approximately 2 months after each session, the participants were tested for persisting positive changes in attitudes, mood or behavior and spirituality and answered three questions: How personally meaningful was the experience? Indicate the degree to which the experience was spiritually significant to you, and do you believe that the experience and your contemplation of that experience have led to change in your current sense of personal well being or life satisfaction?
These ratings were significantly higher after psilocybin than after the control. "67% of the volunteers rated the hallucinogenic experience with as either the single most meaningful experience of their life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life. In written comments, the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Thirty-three percent of the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as being the single most spiritually significant experience of his or her life, with an additional 38% rating it to be among the top five most spiritually significant experiences. In written comments about their answers, the volunteers often described aspects of the experience related to a sense of unity without content (pure consciousness) and/or unity of all things." (8)
Nonetheless, a full one third of the subjects characterized their experience of fear at some point during the psilocybin session as "strong" or "extreme". Four of those said the entire session was dominated by anxiety or psychological struggle, and another four reported the same anxiety and struggle throughout a significant portion of their session. (9, 10, 11)
The researchers noted that the proportion of subjects who fulfilled Pahnke's criteria for experiencing a complete mystical experience (61%) was higher than Pahnke reported for his Good Friday experiment, and that was probably due to differences in the experiment setting - private setting vs. group setting.
The researchers summarized, "psilocybin produced a range of acute perceptual changes, subjective experiences, and labile (changeable or unbalanced) moods including anxiety. Psilocybin also increased measures of mystical experience. At two months, the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers." They concluded, "When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequences."
Five guest reviewers were invited by Psychopharmacology to comment on the study and its findings. Each expressed optimism about the potential of psychedelic drug research and an almost palatable relief that, finally, the barrier to research on human subjects had been breached. (12)
These commentators may soon know whether their optimism is warranted, as a glance at the studies underway or in development reveals. Ecstasy, LSD, Ketamine are among the synthesized drugs being studied, as well as the naturally occurring ones such as peyote, ayahuasca and ibogaine. (13)
(2a) The real dangers of the New Age movement.
(3a) Toward self: Increased
integration of personality is the
basic inward change in the personal self. Undesirable traits may be
faced in such a way that they may be dealt with and finally reduced or
eliminated. As a result of personal integration, one's sense of inner
authority may be strengthened, and the vigor and dynamic quality of a
person's life may be increased. Creativity and greater efficiency of
achievement may be released. An inner optimistic tone may result, with
a consequent increase in feelings of happiness, joy, and peace.
Toward others: more sensitivity, more tolerance, more real love, and more authenticity as a person by virtue of being more open and more one's true self with others.
Toward life in a positive direction: philosophy of life, sense of values, sense of meaning and purpose, vocational commitment, need for service to others, and new appreciation of life and the whole of creation. Life may seem richer. The sense of reverence may be increased, and more time may be spent in devotional life and meditation.
Toward the mystical experience itself: it is regarded as valuable and that what has been learned is thought to be useful. The experience is remembered as a