I’ve been dipping into one of my favourite reads, The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. This is in anticipation of Saturday’s study day on psi and psychedelics at the Society for Psychical Research in London (April 26). These events aren’t always that well attended, but I expect this one will be. As the prohibition on cannabis splutters to an end there’s a sense that cracks might also start to develop in the ban on the use of hallucinogens, with who knows what exciting results.
Varieties describes research into the effects of LSD and peyote in some 200 sessions, with detailed descriptions of different kinds of experiences. It’s like entering into another world, and it’s extraordinary to think that in the right circumstances any of us could gain access to it. As I think Aldous Huxley was the first to suggest, this altered state of consciousness should ideally be part of everyone’s education
I regret that my own experiences in the early 1970s were not particularly coherent or pleasant. I should have approached it with more respect. As it was, I either under or overdosed, and didn’t take good enough care to be in ideal surroundings. (The need for this is made abundantly clear in the book.) However I did get a memorable glimpse of its awesome power, and was deeply impressed by the sense, famously described by William James, that there are many valid ways of experiencing the world besides the one we’re used to.
Does the psychedelic experience stimulate psi? There are various reports by ethnologists and explorers that it does, with native people under the influence of hallucinogens suddenly showing uncanny knowledge of things going on in distant locations (as was subsequently verified). Many subjects of LSD and peyote sessions believed themselves to be in telepathic rapport with others. So the authors set about doing some experiments.
They started with Zener cards. The average score of 27 subjects was 3.5, or 1.5 below chance, which they speculated might indicate psi-missing – a possibility if only because the subjects understandably found it a boring waste of time. However four of the subjects produced consistently high scores on LSD, but poorly without. It seems other researchers had similarly dismal results with card guessing in psychedelic states, with the sole exception of Andrija Puharich, as reported in his book Beyond Telepathy.
The authors had more success by getting people to image a scene that had been briefly described in a sealed envelope. In the case of one high-scoring subject ‘Viking ship tossed in storm’ produced an image of a snake with arched head swimming in tossed seas. ‘Rain forest in the Amazon’ produced lush vegetation, exotic, flowers, startling greens. ‘Atlas holding up the world’ led to ‘Hercules tossing a ball up and down in his hand’; a sailboat off a rocky coast – sailboat sailing around a cliff; etc.
In a third type of experiment the subject was asked to get inside the head of some historical character.
In some of these cases the results were remarkable, the subject changing his voice, way of speaking, posture and even, it seemed, his appearance and way of thinking. The subject would not, however, lose his awareness of his own identity. He would, rather, ‘be two people,’ and would talk about his ‘new’ and ‘second self’ with a plausibility that sometimes verged on the uncanny.
It was clear to the authors that the psychedelic state is not necessarily more conducive to psi phenomena than the normal state. But some evidence of a spontaneous telepathic rapport did emerge. One group session included a pair of female twins who, as children, had been made to wear the same clothes and do the same things, and later rebelled, becoming strongly antagonistic to each other, and striving to be as unlike as possible (one was a scientist, the other an avant-garde painter).
For the first hour of the session they kept up their customary bickering. Then, as the drug took hold, they became absorbed in their altered perceptions and started comparing notes. To their consternation they discovered these were almost completely alike – at any given moment each was experiencing exactly what the other was experiencing (and yet, when they checked, not at all what was going on in the heads of three others in the group). Eventually, the authors write, they went into ‘a profound and almost trancelike sort of communion’ in which, as they said later, they discovered themselves to be essentially the same person. Each proclaimed herself to be ‘variations on my twin’, but declared that the ‘overlapping of identities was no longer a discomfort’.
There were also some striking instances of clairvoyance. In one instance a young woman said she could ‘see’ her little daughter back at home in her kitchen taking advantage of her absence to hunt for the cookie jar. She then reported that the child, perched on a chair and rummaging through the cabinets, had knocked over a glass sugar bowl which had shattered, spilling sugar everywhere. She forgot this episode, but later, when she was making some coffee, she couldn’t find the sugar bowl, and was informed by her husband that their daughter had ‘made a mess while looking for cookies’, knocking the bowl from the shelf and smashing it.
In another case a subject reported seeing ‘a ship caught in ice floes, somewhere in the northern seas’ – the name on the bow of the ship was France. Three days later news was published of a ship named France having been freed from ice somewhere near Greenland, after becoming trapped apparently at around the time of the session.
Among other things the SPR event will focus on these sorts of experiments, and I guess will speculate about how they might be updated in the light of techniques developed since the ban on psychedelics in the mid 1960s. Which is all good, and will be interesting to hear about. But in a way, a focus on psi can seem like a distraction from its central meaning. Reading Varieties, the notion of psychic operation for once seemed positively humdrum amid the chaotic passion and force of the event as a subjective experience. This is so often a journey into a world of images, symbols and meanings; of sudden crashing insights about the self, that heal and transform; or of epic five-hour struggles with monsters, gods and demons.
The authors are drily dismissive of the New Age-type utterances of some of their subjects – who may grandly proclaim to feel expansive love or to have become ‘One with the All’ – which they associate with the half-digested, half-baked mysticism of the sixties counter-culture. They are also exasperated by the excesses promoted by the likes of Timothy Leary. But they leave no doubt about the immense therapeutic value the experience can have, especially when supervised by a seasoned guide who makes useful suggestions about how to go forward, get out of awkward situations and move into new areas.
Alas, that’s something I’m unlikely ever to experience, as for (mild) medical reasons I’m probably contraindicated as a subject. But just reading about it can be breathtaking too.