The Issue of the Consciousness-Expanding Drugs



September-October 1963

Volume 20 - Number I

THE CONSCIOUSNESS-EXPANDING DRUGS LSD and psilocybin have been hailed, in some quarters at least, as having fantastic potentialities for aiding man to know himself, for helping him release his creative powers, for contributing toward reducing his alienation from himself and his fellow man and toward the discovery and creation of meaning in his life. Yet LSD was recently banned in Canada, along with thalidomide, as a "dangerous drug," and in general it is harder to get than heroin or cyanide. In the province of Saskatchewan a combination of LSD treatment and AA follow-up has become a standard procedure for chronic alcoholism with an improvement rate of 50 percent in cases where other treatments had failed. The director of the provincial Bureau on Alcoholism has stated: "LSD is the most useful discovery in the field of alcoholism since Alcoholics Anonymous." Yet elsewhere few alcoholics can obtain the LSD treatment, and after a half dozen years of reports of consistently favorable results there is still no major, controlled study in progress to prove or disprove the claims. Dr. Sidney Cohen, who has made what are no doubt the most detailed studies of adverse reactions to LSD (1), recently summarized his findings in the statement, "Considering the enormous scope of the psychic responses it induces, LSD is an astonishingly safe drug." (2) Physiologically, it is less dangerous than aspirin or penicillin, and certainly far less deleterious than alcohol or tobacco. Yet a recent editorial in the psychiatric organ of the AMA, the Annals for General Psychiatry, warns that "greater sickness and even death is in store... unless controls are developed against the unwise use of LSD," and expresses alarm that the public has heard of the claimed benefits from LSD and "is looking for psychiatrists who specialize in its administration." (3) And an unintentional parody of a scientific report sounds the alarm over the danger of "homicide by LSD" (in addition to noting that LSD "may prove to be valuable for elephant-control work in Africa"). (4)

Two recently deposed Harvard University professors observed (before their final discharge emphasized the point) that the consciousness-expanding or psychedelic agents "are too powerful and too controversial to be researched in a university setting." (5) (Since the collapse of the work at Harvard, no major study of the uses of the psychedelic drugs is harbored at any university in the U. S.) The American Civil Liberties Union has been concerned with protecting the "religious freedom" of Indians who, in certain regions, violate the law when they attend the church of their choice, the Native American Church in which the sacramental nutriment is peyote, another of the psychedelic substances. Shortly after word got around that the seeds of the ubiquitous "Heavenly Blue" and "Pearly Gates" morning glories (closely related to the ololiuqui used in the religious exercises of the ancient Aztecs and various primitive Mexican Indian tribes) contain a congener of LSD with similar psychic effects, steps were taken to restrict the sale of the seeds. (6)

The intelligent layman could be forgiven some bewilderment at encountering these diverse reports. A host of puzzling questions arise. How to reconcile the boundless enthusiasm of those who find in these remarkable chemicals a sovereign remedy for man's psychological and social ills with the active antagonism of others who are convinced that they threaten his safety and sanity? Are these substances indeed "consciousness-expanding" or are they, rather, "mind-distorting"? (In Savage's phrasing of the question, do they provide "Instant Grace, Instant Insanity, or Instant Analysis"?) What about the physiological and psychological safety? How can insight obtained under abnormal psychological conditions be valid? Are the new perceptions perhaps simply the result of extreme suggestibility under the drug, since there is often such a similarity between the "insight" of the subject and the beliefs of the person administering the drug? Are these "artificially induced'' experiences comparable in significance or effects to "naturally" occurring mystical experience? This paper is intended to be a contribution toward clarification of some aspects of this complex issue.

Safety and Suggestibility

Some of the above questions have been dealt with, in some detail, in a separate paper. (7) They will be disposed of rather quickly here in order to concentrate more fully on a more fundamental matter.

The question of safety has been adequately treated elsewhere. (1, 7) LSD (or one of the other chemicals of this class) represents a potent and versatile tool requiring responsible handling and effective controls (as with electricity or automobiles). There are real hazards involved with casual or uninformed or maldirected usage of the psychedelic drugs. But any agent with the power to produce benefits has also the power to do harm. Safety is not a basic issue, but often is a camouflage for issues less easy or less comfortable to examine.

The question of the habit-forming properties of these chemicals often arises, and usually behind it there is a hint of the generalized anxiety over the connotations of the word "drug." De Ropp (8) reminds us to view the situation in the light of history, and recalls a number of illuminating instances from the past.

The public reaction to unfamiliar drugs has not been characterized by considered rationality in the past, and perhaps this would be too much to expect in the present case. The psychedelic drugs are certainly not narcotics nor addicting drugs in the usual sense of those terms. Nevertheless, an inordinate desire for almost anything, from danger to food to sex, may develop when certain psychological disturbances are present. These agents are no exception.

Another question was aptly phrased in a recent symposium:

"I view recent work on LSD-25 and psychotherapy with very mixed feelings. The drug may really be enabling patients to obtain startling insights into their problems and may be able to cause them to strikingly alter their behavior, but I am at a loss to know how much of this to attribute to a drug-induced 'freeing' of the mind and how much to attribute to a therapist-induced mystical experience similar to religious conversion. Either effect conceivably could be therapeutically valuable, but the whole area is now so highly charged with emotion and so lacking in adequately controlled research as to make firm conclusions impossible." (9)

The question is a subtle one, since there can be no doubt that suggestibility, in one sense, plays a major role in influencing the nature of the experience provided by the psychedelic agents. In the widespread use of these materials in religious exercises, in many areas of the world and throughout the centuries, the settings were deliberately contrived to remind the partaker that the hallowed ground of his own soul was being made accessible to him. Certainly having some knowledge of the values others before him have found, the prospective LSD taker is more likely to discover the valuable aspects of the experience than if he were completely unprepared. That does not necessarily invalidate his experience, any more than an aesthetic experience is invalidated because one knew beforehand that others considered a particular work of art to be beautiful, or the psychiatric patient's insight is invalidated because he had once read Freud. But it is possible for an aesthete or an art critic to don an inauthentic appreciation of art. A patient may absorb his psychiatrist's interpretation of his problems and yet fail to achieve authentic insight into himself. And so the LSD subject may "pick up" the conceptual framework of a person who is with him during his session. The problem of discerning the difference between authentic experience and appropriated dogma is always present.

How could one do other than favor controlled research to settle some of these vexing points? Yet in our zeal for finality there is the ever-present danger of controlling out of existence the very aspects of the experience which commended it to us in the first place. We are dealing here not with a physiological drug reaction, but rather with a complex situation in which drug, setting, preparation of the subject, experience and quality of the persons present during the sessions, and sequence of events during the session are all factors. The difficulty of obtaining adequate controls for studying such a process without deleteriously affecting it has been well recognized both in the fields of psychotherapy and of education.

Diverse Testimonies

A prime point of confusion regarding these substances is the matter of the remarkable variety of experience potentially available through the psychedelic agents. This profusion of effects is reflected in the medical and psychiatric literature, where this one class of agents is referred to by an extraordinary heterogeneity of terms including, besides psychedelic, "hallucinogenic" (hallucination-producing), "psychotomimetic" (producing a psychotic-like condition), "psychoadjuvant" (10) (aiding psychotherapy by facilitating recall, promoting emotional release, uncovering repressed material, etc.), "mysticomimetic" and others. (11) Which of these effects predominate depends upon the expectations of the subject, the qualities of the persons present with him when he takes the drug, and on the nature of the setting---on "extra-drug variables which have been uncontrolled and largely unrecognized until recently." (l1) That is to say, the psychedelic agent is a tool, having in general the property of expanding the range of conscious awareness (of matters both "real" and "imaginary") and depending upon how it is used (or misused) one gets varying effects.

A recent paper (12) discusses the potential range of experiences with these substances in terms of three stages: (1) a stage of evasive maneuvers, (2) of symbolic perception, and (3) of immediate perception. Because the clarification is so essential to the task at hand, the descriptions will be quoted at length:

"(1) Evasive Stage. Typically when one of the psychedelic materials is used to give access to the unconscious, the result is often overwhelming at first. The reaction may be an attempt (of which the subject is not necessarily consciously aware) to control the effects of the drug. If adequate material has been administered this attempt cannot completely succeed, but it may lead to psychosomatic symptoms of various sorts such as localized pain or numbness or possibly nausea. The strangeness of the new feelings and perceptions which come flooding in may, particularly if he tries to cope with them by rationalizing them and fitting them into his old and inadequate conceptual framework, throw the subject into an uncomfortable state of confusion in which the intellectual processes are swamped and attempts to establish order fail. This state may become quite frightening and distressing, and may resemble a schizophrenic state. Any distrust of others may become magnified into a paranoidal sort of suspicion and anxiety....

"These unpleasant episodes can be minimized by support and guidance from the therapist, by the subject's trust in those around him and by his willingness to relinquish his previously-held concepts and opinions in order that he may perceive himself and the world in a new and unaccustomed manner....

"He may enter next (with eyes closed or with low illumination) upon a succession of hallucinatory experiences. Brilliantly colored geometrical patterns present a constantly changing spectacle of aesthetic delight. It is as though the ego, having lost the battle to divert attention through unpleasantness, seeks to charm and distract the conscious mind by throwing up a smokescreen of hallucinations to hide the inner knowledge which it fears. The visions may portray scenes and incidents, as in a technicolor dream, or they may take the form of abstract symbols, and may become fraught with meaning as the individual passes into the second stage of symbolic perception.

"(2) Symbolic Stage. The most diverse experiences are encountered here, often coupled with significant meaning which may be immediately apparent or which may come only with subsequent pondering. The unconscious mind employs visual and other symbolic representations with seemingly endless variety to convey insights to the conscious mind. They may represent to the individual some aspect of his own picture of himself, or some characteristic of his specific approach to life. Again, the insight may be a more general one of a philosophical-religious nature. This may come, for example, in the form of a newly deepened significance to a familiar phrase such as "We are all one," or in an awareness of a greatly intensified feeling or relationship to others and to the entire universe....

Gradually the subject comes to see and accept himself, not as an individual with "good" and "bad" characteristics, but as one who simply is. By relinquishing his concepts and surrendering himself to the experience he finds he can move beyond the state where knowledge is mediated in symbolic form, to a totally new condition in which it appears directly.

"(3) Stage of Immediate Perception. So the psychosomatic symptoms, the model psychoses, the multicolored hallucinatory images tend to disappear. The individual develops an awareness of other aspects of reality than those to which he is accustomed. He is convinced that, somehow or other, this other realm (which he feels he apprehends directly, in contrast to the usual space-time world of practical experience and of physics which he perceives with his physical senses) is "really" there, in a manner similar to that in which he is convinced in ordinary life (without being able to demonstrate) that he and other personalities with whom he interacts exist in reality. He perceives what he may attempt to describe as "levels" of consciousness, as "other dimensions" of space, as "traveling in time"; and yet as he tries to describe these he recognizes the effort to be as doomed to partial failure as the effort to describe being in love to someone who has not experienced it.

"Above all, he comes to experience himself in a totally new way and finds that the age-old question "who am I?" does have a significant answer. He experiences himself as a far greater being than he had ever imagined, with his conscious self a far smaller fraction of the whole than he had realized. Furthermore, he sees that his own self is by no means so separate from other selves and the universe about him as he might have thought. Nor is the existence of this newly experienced self so intimately related to his corporeal existence.

"These realizations, while not new to mankind, and possibly not new to the subject in an intellectual sense, are very new in an experiential sense. That is, they are new in the sense that makes for altered behavior. The individual sees clearly that some of his actions are not in line with his new knowledge and that changes are obviously called for. Behavior patterns, worn in with many years of usage, are not easily nor quickly changed. Nevertheless, because the individual's new knowledge of himself results from deeply felt experience and is not merely intellectual, with the passage of time his behavior does tend to change to become more appropriate to his expanded picture of himself."

Let us first admit the limitations of this or any arbitrary subdividing of experience. Nevertheless, it aids in understanding how the multiplicity of impressions regarding the characteristics of LSD experiences could have arisen. Persons who failed to progress beyond the first stage would be impressed with the bizarre hallucinations, multicolored visions, depersonalizations, painful confusions, and fragmentations of personality. Those who moved on to the second stage might well conclude that here is a source of fantasy and emotional material more controllable than dreams, so that LSD may be viewed as an "activator of the unconscious." Coupled with the observation that the psychedelic agents typically foster clear recall or "reliving," and abreaction to traumatic or significant experiences, allow viewing and discussion of one's own defense patterns with a curious sort of detached objectivity, and increase affectivity (reducing any tendency to hold experience at arm's length by intellectualization), this leads to a variety of applications in the facilitating of psychotherapy of the usual sorts. Those who press on to the third stage are more likely to speak in terms of a "liberation" therapy, conceptually significantly different from most Western psychiatry (13), in terms which seem analogous to the "unitive knowing" or "new kind of consciousness" of mystical experience. (14) The latter are in the most trouble, since in whatever form they attempt to conceptualize for purposes of communication there is an essential certainty of their being misinterpreted.

But not only is the situation confusing because of the variety of kinds of experience attributed to the drugs. He who seeks to inform himself is further puzzled by the fact that those most impressed by the potentialities have very often been laymen. On the surface this may seem to argue tellingly against the claims of the LSD enthusiasts. The professionals, those one would naturally turn to for an expert evaluation of the potentialities of these drugs, seem by and large not to share the experiences nor the enthusiasms. One psychiatrist who has administered LSD to a number of such experts comments on this:

"Some of our professional subjects and patients, learned philosophers, psychologists and psychiatrists, are unable to relax and enjoy the revelations of LSD. Instead of marveling: 'My God, I've never been in this land before,' they explain, interpret and deny all in terms of their conventional framework .... "(15)

Toward a More Basic Issue

Given, then, that these agents must be used with due caution and wisdom, that the suggestibility matter is a subtle one, that the public exhibits certain fears and prejudices associated with the word "drug," and that persons are able to use these substances with widely varying degrees of effectiveness, these facts still do not account for the obviously self-contradictory attitudes one encounters with regard to the psychedelic issue. A member of a research grants committee, for example, may argue that the therapeutic efficacy of the psychedelic agents is relatively unexplored (which it is), and in the next utterance state that only highly controlled studies (inappropriate in the exploratory phase of an investigation) should be sponsored. A doctor may contend that suggestibility (extradrug variable) plays a major role in determining the nature of the LSD experience, but at the same time insist that research on the psychological effects of LSD, being drug research, should be left exclusively to the members of the medical profession. Many with religious interests deplore the use of "artificial" aids to spirituality or enlightenment, yet would not apply this adjective to liturgy, religious symbol, meditational technique, fasting or asceticism.

One need only observe the public press treatment of news relating to LSD, or the dissenting opinions presented in our scientific publications, to recognize that the controversy has strong emotional roots. Individuals become personally involved, and discussion becomes tinged with emotionalism, to an extent which does not seem adequately accounted for as the usual sluggishness with which new developments are accepted, nor even by the often mentioned matter of entrenched interests threatend by new techniques.

The basic phenomenon is, I think, something far more subtle and pervasive. It is the threat posed by the fact that if one considers psychedelic experience to be essentially valid (and, of course, it is only when the subject does take it to be valid that there result any significant changes in his personality or behavior patterns), this implies that the belief-and-value system implicit in our "scientific" culture is not uniquely true and not even optimally wholesome. This becomes a personal threat because of the extent to which each of us absorbs the beliefs and values of the culture into his own personal belief system. Now it is one thing to accept this possibility intellectually, but quite another to allow it to get to the "feeling level." This seems to me to be a central point in the understanding of the consciousness-expanding drug issue, and the remainder of this paper will be devoted to its development. 

Beliefs and Defenses

Those of us who have had the privilege of sitting with numerous individuals as they made the LSD-facilitated journey into their own minds, an experience which is always fascinating and often heartwarming and awe-inspiring, have sought the most congenial terms for describing the transforming process we sometimes see. I believe Rokeach's belief-system concepts furnish a helpful visualization. In these terms, the basic psychological malfunctioning is unwholesome belief-system content and structure. The action of the consciousness-expanding drug gives the person access to hitherto inaccessible psychic material, facilitates thinking and feeling in unfamiliar ways, allows perception of himself and the world about him in an unhabitual manner, and makes it possible for him to reexamine his basic beliefs and values in the light of such new data. However, this has a powerfully threatening aspect. Although the psychedelic agent partially and temporarily allays the usual defenses against knowledge of inconsistencies within his belief structure or incompatibilities between his beliefs and his experience, there remains a resistance to that which is unconsciously perceived as forcing changes in his central beliefs-and-values structure. The subject reacts as though his sanity, or indeed, his existence were threatened. Thus, in a sense it is when he surrenders his claim to his sanity as he perceives it, or his existence as he conceives it, that he can move completely into the new experiences. His resistance, he discovers, was partly against knowledge which, he unconsciously feared, would be painful and shattering. But it was also partly, in a strangely perverse way, against awareness that within the self reside undreamed-of values and limitless potentialities. The sorts of behavior change which we interpret as therapeutic gain may be profitably viewed as following from the relinquishing of unwholesome belief-system content and structure, and the espousing of wholesome beliefs and values with a healthy openness to new data, having seen that one's beliefs do not need his personal protective care.

It is necessary to be somewhat more specific about what is meant by the "belief-and-value system." This is to be taken in the sense proposed by Rokeach:

"We have to infer what a person really believes from all the things he says and does. It is in this sense that we will use the term belief.

"Belief-disbelief systems serve two powerful and conflicting sets of motives at the same time: the need for a cognitive framework to know and to understand, and the need to ward off threatening aspects of reality.... The more closed the belief-disbelief system, the more do we conceive it to represent, in its totality, a tightly woven network of cognitive defenses against anxiety.... The closed system is nothing more than the total network of psychoanalytic defense mechanisms organized together to form a cognitive system and designed to shield a vulnerable mind." (16)

It is in these terms also that we find most comprehensible the historical instances where new data or new theories to accommodate existing data have resulted in controversies in which sides have been taken with unusual personal involvement and emotional vigor. Classical examples are the Copernican hypothesis, the Darwinian theory, the Freudian constructs, the early demonstrations of hypnosis, and the data on extrasensory perception and psychokinesis. The surface arguments may have to do with the sinister effects the new theories will have on the social structure, with the investigators' experimental techniques or their use of statistics, or with their integrity. But the fundamental phenomenon would appear to be the threat to the adequacy of the personal belief system to order and accommodate, or "to ward off threatening aspects of" the new data. The sort of rationalization that comes forth to meet the attack is graphically illustrated by one of the historical examples cited by Polanyi:

"Scientific skepticism brushed aside all the instances of hypnotic phenomena. and--even in the face of the systematic demonstrations of hypnosis by Mesmer and his successors--denied for another century after Mesmer's first appearance the reality of hypnotic phenomena....The medical profession ignored such palpable facts as the painless amputation of human limbs, performed before their own eyes in hundreds of successive cases….Elliotson gave details of 76 painless operations….The conclusion [of his critics was] that Elliotson's subjects were impostors who were either deluding him or colluding with him .... Mesmer was denounced as an impostor; Esdaile carried out about 300 major operations painlessly under mesmeric trance in India, but neither in India nor in Great Britain could he get medical journals to print accounts of his work." (17)

Polanyi attributes what seems like incredible closed-mindedness to "lack of a conceptual framework in which their discoveries could be separated from specious and untenable admixtures." On this score we are not much better off now, over a century later, but in the meantime we have learned to be comfortable with the phenomena in spite of the lack of an adequate theory. (After all, there is no adequate theory of sleep, or the action of aspirin---or of love.)

It was tempting to choose instead of hypnosis the example of extrasensory perception to make the point of the unacceptability of new data which forces too great reorganization of the belief system or, indeed, seems to fall hopelessly outside any conceivable conceptual framework. However, this controversy is too recent and the dust has not yet settled (in spite of the fact that on both sides of the iron curtain there is now government-sponsored research in ESP, and that police departments in several countries have found clairvoyance a sufficiently dependable phenomenon to be used in criminology). Furthermore, it is too intimately involved in the psychedelic issue.

Thus, we are faced with the possibility that at the present point in history the psychedelic agents may be playing the role of Galileo's telescope. The data which are so recalcitrant toward containment in the old conceptual framework are, to put the matter concisely, the seeming universality of the psychedelic perception, which points to its relationship with mystical experience.

"The occurrence of mystical experience at all times and places, and the similarities between the statements of so many mystics all the world over, seem to be a significant fact. Prima facie it suggests that there is an aspect of reality with which those persons come in contact in their mystical experiences, and which they afterward strive and largely fail to describe in the language of daily life. I should say that this prima facie appearance of objectivity ought to be accepted at its face value unless and until some reasonably satisfactory alternative explanation of the agreement can be given." (18)

Mystical or Mysticomimetic?

The equation of psychedelic with mystical experience requires some justification, of course. It is pointless to argue, as some have done, that because some LSD subjects have experienced no more than a giggly euphoria and pleasant hallucinations, any application of the term mystical to the drug experience is fallacious. It has never been claimed that all LSD experience is mystical, only that some may be.

There is probably no better way to communicate the substance and quality of the sort of experience which was earlier termed "the stage of immediate perception," than to quote directly from subjective accounts of individual experiences. One individual writes:

"During this stage . . . comes that experience called by the mystics "the realization of the God within us." This comes to many under these drugs, and is an indescribable, piercing, beautiful knowledge and knowing, which goes beyond the body, the mind, the reason, the intellect, to an area of pure knowing.... There is no sensation of time. God is no longer only "out there" somewhere, but He is within you, and you are one with Him. No doubt of it even crosses one's awareness at this stage. You are beyond the knower and the known, where there is no duality, but only oneness and unity, and great love. You not only see Truth, but you are truth. You are Love. You are all things! It is not an ego-inflating experience, but on the contrary, one which can help one to dissolve the ego. It gives one a splendid flash of what can be, and what one must surely aim for. It resolves the goal, and the goal is found worthy of pursuit. The consciousness or awareness is expanded far beyond that of the normal state. And this level of consciousness, which actually is available to us at all times, is found to be that part of us which, for want of a better way to express it, might be called the "God-ness" of us. And we find that this God-ness is unchangeable and indestructible, and that its foundation is Love in its purest form....

"Utilizing this inner Self as the working basis of your life, you realize fully that nothing can ever hurt you or bother you, not even death. It gives life a completely new meaning, and one which is indestructible, and which fits in with the scheme of things. You no longer find yourself an outsider, separated from Nature and separated from God, and separated from your fellow beings." (19)

Another subject had some unpleasant hours in the beginning, working with self acceptance, coming to terms with her own guilt feelings, and dealing with her fears. Among her significant insights, she reported:

"Our misery comes from within, not without.... Forgive yourself for what you did in ignorance, blindness, and fear, and let go--and you will find death not a thing to fear but a new and exciting experience, merely another level of Reality and Existence.... I am the universe, I am all men.... I was blind before; all the things I did were only a desperate search for meaning to my life and trying to discover myself. I regret past errors, cruelties, lies, faithlessness, etc. But I have lived with self-loathing and guilt always and find it accomplishes nothing. I find I can forgive myself and not spend time weeping over spilt milk. What was done was done. I did them. It is over--I am reborn. I have punished myself enough. It is time to live--and do better in the light of what I have learned.... These thoughts seem to hit with absolute truth from no-where--not the result of analyzing.

[In the latter part of the day, she was taken for a drive into the hills.]

"I am much struck with the older looking hills.... Feel they were there before time, before eternity, before God… but--not before me. What does it mean? Terror and bewilderment and then a burst of tremendous truth. I am God. I am utterly shaken by sobs and trembling all over. The enormity is too much; sudden blazing joy, realization, humility, power, tumbling one on the other. Can I accept this? This, the Ultimate Reality.... I have a slight doubt as to my sanity--don't they lock you up for going around saying you are God?... Man is Divine. Yes, of course....

I am God, the universe, Christ, all men, all everything--all exists within me. The Self is limitless, endless, eternal --it is all knowing, all aware, and at bottom Good.... And this Truth is not only true of me but of all men. It is true of those who know it and true for those who don't. Each man must find his own salvation; yet I cannot help but feel that there are some truths common to us all, and this is one of them.... "

Another subject gives this description:

"Suddenly I burst into a vast, new, indescribably wonderful universe. Although I am writing this over a year later, the thrill of the surprise and amazement, the awesomeness of the revelation, the engulfment in an overwhelming feeling-wave of gratitude and blessed wonderment, are as fresh, and the memory of the experience is as vivid, as if it had happened five minutes ago. And yet to concoct anything by way of description that would even hint at the magnitude, the sense of ultimate reality . . . this seems such an impossible task. The knowledge which has infused and affected every aspect of my life came instantaneously and with such complete force of certainty that it was impossible, then or since, to doubt its validity."

"I was immediately aware that I exist (not just at that moment, but always) in a trans-physical universe, perceived spatially although it seemed clear that the usual space concepts don't necessarily apply. The feeling was that just as when one turns his attention outward he finds the vast physical universe stretching out an infinite distance in all directions, so on turning inward I had come to a vast realm of inner space which likewise extended out in all directions without limit. But I too am limitless, I perceived, and all of this vast realm is somehow me. Even as I perceive it I am only becoming aware of myself...."

"I knew too that the 'I' I was now experiencing had existed long before the physical me was born and would continue to exist long after that organism was dead. In fact, this newly discovered 'I,' outside of physical time and space, is responsible for the creation in space and time of the physical universe....

"Following this intense and brief period of realization, I became aware that this totally strange state of being had been, somehow, familiar as well. It was as though somehow, in some previous state of existence, I had known well what was now coming to consciousness as a 'new' experience....

"I want to emphasize that this knowledge, which has had and will continue to have such a profound effect on my life, is completely compatible in my mind with the knowledge of a different sort which I have acquired in the course of a formal training in scientific disciplines. It makes such knowledge part of a coherent whole in a way it was not before. It is only when I attempt to write about it that I realize that to many of these Statements will be mystifying and unintelligible."

As one compares these accounts and others like them with such an analysis of classical mysticism as Walter Stace (14) has provided for us, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is a basic human experience, with qualities or attributes which are universal in the sense that they are independent of culture and conditioning, and independent of the agency employed to assist the individual into the appropriate state for experiencing.

What Beliefs are Wholesome?

Here we have the puzzle posed by the psychedelic experience brought into clearer focus. By commonly applied standards the fact that the subject accepts his experience as valid and verbalizes such beliefs as those quoted above would be taken as evidence that he had fallen into a delusional or psychotic state. And yet the beliefs also seem pragmatically to be wholesome and therapeutic.

We cannot take the Space to elaborate this point, but the serenity and deep sense of meaning expressed by the LSD subjects quoted stands in sharp contrast to the neurotic anxiety invited by the following "scientific" picture of the nature of man:

"The individual grows up in a world of objects, and sees himself in relationship to them.... Status and role serve… to make behavior predictable, so that the meaning in everyday life becomes dependable.... The child derives his identity from a social environment. The social environment remains to his death the only source for validating that identity....

"The remarkable convergence of twentieth-century thinkers . . . is the elaboration of the idea that human meaning is arbitrary.... The world of human aspiration is fundamentally fictitious. If we do not understand this, we understand nothing about man." (20)

The distinction between a therapy or self-discovery process which recognizes, encourages, and builds on transcendental experience and one which does not is nowhere brought out more clearly than in the attitude toward death. It would be difficult to estimate the extent to which the fear of nonexistence enters into psychopathology. Suffice to say, its role is a key one. "To ignore it or explain it away is to pass up the major opportunity of psychotherapy, for what death negates is not the individual, not the organism/environment, but the ego, and therefore liberation of the ego is synonymous with the full acceptance of death." (13) The best that much psychotherapy is able to do is to help the patient face the dread of his ultimate extinction. In psychedelic therapy the person comes to laugh at the false problem, since he sees he couldn't nonexist if he wanted to.

So it appears that the unacceptability of psychedelic therapy, and of the use of drugs for the unveiling of the self in whatever context--therapeutic, educational, or religious--stems in part at least from this fundamental empirical fact: Through the psychedelic experience persons tend to accept beliefs which are at variance with the usual conception of the "scientific world view." In a current study, (21) the subjects were given, prior to and immediately after the LSD session, a collection of 100 belief and value statements to rank according to the extent they felt the statements expressed their views. Subsequent personality and behavior-pattern changes were evaluated by standard clinical instruments and independent interviews. It was found that therapeutic consequences of the LSD session were predictable on the basis of the extent to which subjects indicated increased belief in statements such as the following:

"I believe that I exist not only in the familiar world of space and time, but also in a realm having a timeless, eternal quality.

"Behind the apparent multiplicity of things in the world of science and common sense there is a single reality in which all things are united.

"It is quite possible for people to communicate telepathically, without any use of sight or hearing, since deep down our minds are all connected.

"Of course the real self exists on after the death of the body. 

"When one turns his attention inward, he discovers a world of 'inner space' which is as vast and as real as the external, physical world.

"Man is, in essence, eternal and infinite.

"Somehow, I feel I have always existed and always will.

"Although this may sound absurd, I have the feeling that somehow I have participated in the creation of everything around me.

"I feel that the mountains and the Sea and the stars are all part of me, and my soul is in touch with the souls of all creatures.

"Each of us potentially has access to vast realms of knowledge through his own mind, including secrets of the universe known so far only to a very few."

Note that in accepting these statements the individual is in effect saying that he is convinced of the possibility of gaining valid knowledge through an extrasensory mode of perception. Thus, the person who feels a compulsion to explain away all ESP data will also find the LSD subject to be the victim of delusion and hallucination.

Changing the Implicit Premises

Michael Polanyi (17) has given a keen analysis of the way in which the implicit metaphysical presuppositions of science have varied, and how at any phase data or theoretical constructions which appear to violate these unstated presuppositions are given a most uncordial reception. There is ever-mounting evidence to indicate that we are at a point in the history of science where the implicit premises are being challenged and altered more drastically than perhaps at any period since the Copernican revolution. At such a time it would be rash indeed to predict what new premises will ultimately be congenial. Certain directions are, however, clear.

Partially as a consequence of developments of the last half-century in the field of physics, we are coming to accept emotionally as well as intellectually the proposition that reality cannot be contained in our finite models. If all conceptual structures are basically incomplete and inadequate, there is no need to be upset if two useful models appear, from one level of viewing, to be contradictory. Thus it disturbs not if we picture a beam of electrons now as a stream of particles, now as bundles of waves. Or if we view man for various purposes alternatively in the conceptual frameworks of Freud, Watson, St. John of the Cross, or the Vedas. We are coming to suspect that the dichotomy subjective/objective is not so basic as it once seemed. It, and the related positivistic assertion that subjective experience coming from "the outside" via our physical senses is somehow more valid than other subjective experience, are coming to seem more to be just the result of looking at things in one particular way. (Erich Fromm, in his discussion of the Love of God (22), terms this principle of the essential incompleteness of all conceptual models "paradoxical logic," and points out its essential role in understanding the transformation of the self.) Finally, we are moving from being unduly constricted by the oft-quoted dictum of Lord Kelvin on the primacy of quantitative data to recognizing, with St. Exupery, that "truth is not that which is demonstrable--it is that which is ineluctable"--that which cannot be escaped, regardless of whether or not we are able to deal with it quantitatively or even statistically.

Although we have largely abandoned the strictly mechanistic model and the positivistic prejudice, they still hamper the ability to view afresh such data as psychedelic research presents. As a case in point, consider the following interchange from a recent symposium:

"Q. I would like to ask the panel whether they consider the mystical transcendental experience of psychotomimetic drugs--LSD for example--a distortion allied to the hallucination or delusion of a sick patient, or whether it is a new intuitive form of knowledge of some kind. Is it a real experience, or is it a distortion of something that was previously present in the mind?

"A. ...The only answer I can give is that I cannot see a mechanism whereby a small molecule such as LSD or mescaline can introduce new information into the brain, since even from what we know thus far this information is stored in a most complex, systematic, and highly organized manner. Therefore, since one is entranced with that concept, one would have to answer that these drugs can only modify or distort previously acquired information; they cannot create something new." (23)

In other words, because I have found a mechanistic model useful for organizing data from other situations, and because I assume that this excludes use of any other kind of model, therefore I "have to answer" that no kind of extrasensory acquisition of knowledge is possible.

Around the turn of the century two kinds of concepts regarding man's unconscious processes were vying for predominance. One was the picture generally attributed to Freud of untamed impulses and unpleasant memories, imprisoned by the thin veneer of "civilized" habit pattern and the vigilance of a mysterious censor. The other, developed more or less simultaneously by F. W. H. Myers (24) was described in his words as "a goldmine as well as a rubbish heap." William James had high regard for Myers' work, and was "disposed to think that Frederic Myers will always be remembered in psychology as the pioneer who staked out a vast tract of mental wilderness and planted the flag of genuine science upon it." But history had it otherwise. Freud's emphases and interpretations fit in better with the presuppositions of the times. The "rubbish heap" concept of the other side of consciousness won out, and Myers was ignored. Only very recently has the atmosphere shifted enough to encourage appearance of such a work as Professor Fingarette's remarkable analysis of the phases of self-transformation which begins with the claim that "psychoanalysis... laid the basis for a systematic contemporary perspective on the life of the spirit" and concludes with a chapter entitled: "The consummatory phase: mystic selflessness." (25).

The Significance of the Psychedelics

Much of the literature on the consciousness-expanding agents has been in terms of their use in accomplishing psychotherapy. Although the controlled research for their full evaluation is as yet lacking, the facts of some therapeutic efficacy and of occasional "spectacular and almost unbelievable results" (10, 1 l) seem adequately demonstrated. Yet it would be incorrect to think of the psychedelic agents as merely another tool to be used in accomplishing psychotherapy. Down through the ages of recorded history various groups, from the ancient Gnostics to the modern Theosophists, within the Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem and Christian traditions alike, have insisted that man has far vaster potentiality for knowledge, and hence power over his fate, than he ordinarily dreams of as possible. They have claimed that it is possible to know--in a way that is completely different from the mere accumulation of facts --man's essential nature and his true relationship to the creative force behind the universe, and wherein his fulfillment lies--that is, what it is he values most highly when the meaning of life is clearly seen. For this knowledge men have followed religious teachers and joined secret societies. They have willingly submitted to the travails of elaborate initiation procedures and trained for years in various yoga and meditation techniques. They have practiced fasting, flagellation, and austerity. Naturally occurring chemical substances have played an important role in some of these groups. Among them all the experience of gnosis, of direct perception and knowledge, has been the most highly prized of all human experiences. Traditionally this knowledge is not easily won. Many people feel that the sustained perception that leads to self-transformation cannot be achieved without long preparation and self-discipline--without "living the life." What can now be done, however, is to win wider acceptance of the fact that man can change his own character and consciousness. "Know thyself" is a dictum to which education has subscribed, in both East and West. In its concentration on mastering the external world and its relative neglect of the inner life, Western culture has by and large failed to develop the technique for putting the dictum into practice. We have also failed to grasp its full significance.

Thus the issue of the consciousness-expanding drugs re-emphasizes the critical need for research on education in its broadest and most profound sense: the kind of education that leads man to discover his own innate capacity for attaining wisdom, rather than that which merely puts into him what passes for knowledge in the culture of the day. Use of the psychedelic agents offers some confirmation to the testimony of mystics that there are dimensions of human experience which lie beyond ordinary consciousness, yet which can be consciously tapped. Science has hitherto failed to recognize such experience, yet without its inclusion no science of man can pretend to represent him in his more creative, more human aspects. If these dimensions cannot be studied by our present scientific methodology, we had best attempt to find new ways by which they can.



1. S. Cohen, "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Side Effects and Complications," J. Nerv. and Ment. Dis. Vol. 130, pp. 30-40; 1960. See also a subsequent report, S. Cohen and K. S. Ditman, "Prolonged Adverse Reactions to Lysergic Acid Diethylamide," Arc. Gen. Psychiatry, Vol. 8, pp. 475-480; 1963.

2. S. Cohen, in Horizon, Vol. 5 No. 5, PP. 31; May, 1963.

3. R. Grinker, Arch. for Gen. Psychiatry, Vol. 8, pp. 425; 1963.

4. L. J. West, C. M. Pierce, W. M. Thomas, "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Its Effects On a Male Asiatic Elephant,'' Science, Vol. 138, pp. 1100-1103; December 7, 1962.

5. T. Leary, R. Alpert, The Harvard Crimson; November, 1962.

6. New York Times; July 10, 1962.

7. W. W. Harman, "Some Aspects of the Psychedelic-Drug Controversy," J. Humanistic Psychology; Autumn, 1963 (in press).

8. R. S. De Ropp, Drugs and the Mind, Grove Press, New York; 1961.

9. J. O. Cole, "Drugs and the Control of the Mind," Control of the Mind, Edited by S. M. Farber and R. H. L. Wilson, McGraw Hill Book Co., New York; 1961.

10. G. R. Schmiege, "The Current Status of LSD as a Therapeutic Tool," paper presented to the American Psychiatric Association, Toronto, Canada; May 8, 1962 (in press, New Jersey Medical Society Journal, 1963).

11. S.M. Unger, "Mescaline, LSD Psilocybin, and Personality Change: A Review," Psychiatry, Vol. 26, pp. 111-125; 1963.

12. J.N. Sherwood, M. J. Stolaroff, W. W. Harman, "The Psychedelic Experience--A New Concept in Psychotherapy," J. Neuropsychiatry, Vol. 4, pp. 69-80; 1962.

13. Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West, Mentor Books, New York; 1963.

14. Walter T. Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics, Mentor Books, New York; 1960.

15. D. D. Jackson, "LSD, Transcendence, and the New Beginning," (Edited by C. Savage), J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., Vol. 135, pp. 425-439; 1962.

16. M. Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind, Basic Books, New York; 1960.

17. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1958.

18. C.D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; 1953.

19. John W. Aiken, "The Secret Path," Journal of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship; March, 1962.

20. Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (Subtitled "A Perspective In Psychiatry and Anthropology''), Macmillan, New York; 1962.

21. C. Savage, W. Harman, J. Fadiman, E. Savage, "An Evaluation of the Psychedelic Experience," Presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, St. Louis, Missouri; May 9, 1963.

22. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, Harper and Bros., New York; 1956.

23. S.S. Kety, in discussion of (9).

24. F.W.H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (abridged edition), University Books, New Hyde Park, New York; 1961

25. Herbert Fingarette, The Self in Transformation, Basic Books, New York; 1963.


WILLIS W. HARMAN is professor of engineering at Stanford University and one of the directors of the International Foundation for Advanced Study of Menlo Park, California, a non-profit organization devoted to research and educational activities relating to the "consciousness-expanding" drugs. An earlier paper, "The Humanities in an Age of Science (Main Currents, March-April 1962) discussing the presuppositions of modern science which limit its ability to give us a satisfying picture of the nature of man, is a logical precursor to the present article.


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