Reproduced by kind permission of David Luke.
Parapsychology has long had a partnership, often scorned, with the field of anthropology – which incorporates the study of man in cultures very different to that of the modern world. And one thing conspicuous about the many less-modernised cultures that have been studied, is that they often share a magical worldview, one in which psychic phenomena and the existence of spirits are accepted as normal and real. What we also find rather conspicuous in anthropology is that those people who traditionally use certain psychoactive plants for their visionary properties - in a sacramental manner - have done so specifically for “magical” purposes, such as extra-sensory perception (ESP, a term which includes clairvoyance, telepathy and precognition), psychic diagnosis, and healing, and these practices collectively termed ‘psi’ are thought to have been active for thousands of years.
For instance, the ancient European psychoactive plant, henbane, was originally called “pythonian” in honour of the divinatory goddess of the Temple of Delphi, who was named Python. And it is suspected that the oracles of Delphi, the ‘pythia’, used this plant to aid in their divination. A similar correspondence is found with the ancient mandrake plant, which is mentioned in the bible. The Northern Europeans of old gave the name “alraune” for mandrake in common with the name “alruna” which they gave to their visionary seeress, or shamaness, both of which stem from the word “rune”, the Germanic divinatory letter system.
More compelling yet, for parapsychologists, there is an abundance of stories of anthropologists and explorers either witnessing or experiencing first-hand the occurrence of apparently paranormal abilities with the use of these sacramental plants. This includes plants such as peyote among the Huichol people of Mexico, psilocybin-containing mushrooms with the Mazatec, fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia, datura in India, pituri in Australia, and practically all, what we call, “psychedelic” plants, in all regions of the world.
Perhaps of particular importance in this equation is ayahuasca, the Amazonian decoction, which finds itself very much at home here in Brazil and other parts of South America. This brew, called “the vine of the spirits”, so often accompanies reports of psychic ability that when one of its psychoactive constituents, harmine, was isolated at the turn of the 20th century, the Colombian, Rafael Zerda-Bayon, initially named it “telepathine”. Zerda-Bayon illustrated why it should receive such a name with the case of Colonel Morales, who, after ingesting an extract of harmala alkaloids, beheld a vision of his dead father and his sick sister. About one month later he received the same news by messenger. It seems unlikely that the news could have arrived first by non-paranormal means, as Colonel Morales and his group were deep in the jungle 15 days’ travel from the nearest communications outpost at the time.
A point that may have been overlooked in highlighting the psychic effects of these so-called psychedelic plants is that, oppositely, there is a serious lack of similar paranormal reports with the non-visionary psychoactive plants that have been used since antiquity, such as coffee, coca, and cacao, or chocolate at it is better known.
But it isn’t just from the investigation of other cultures that we find reports of paranormal phenomena only occurring with vision-inducing plants. The word psychedelic, meaning “mind-manifesting”, was originally created by the English physician, Dr. Humphrey Osmond in correspondence with another Englishman, Aldous Huxley, the famous novelist, in 1956.
Four years earlier, in 1952, Osmond had published an article with his colleague, John Smythies, who was a member of the Society for Psychical Research even then, and he still is now. In this article they proposed that a new theory of mind was needed that could account for extraordinary experiences with mescaline (a psychoactive principle of certain cacti) and what they considered to be the scientifically-proven fact of extra-sensory perception (ESP). Aldous Huxley read this article and requested that Osmond should visit Huxley in the United States and give him Mescaline.
In doing so, Huxley then catalysed the popularisation of psychedelics with the publication of his book, “The Doors of Perception” in 1954. Not only did Huxley eloquently describe his experience of Mescaline in this book, he also put forward a very simple neurochemical model of ESP, by suggesting that the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, was right to propose that the brain’s primary function was to filter out all the excess sensory data that we do not attend to. Data, which would otherwise overwhelm the conscious mind with a mass of information – information, normally irrelevant for the organism’s survival.
Huxley added to this, by suggesting that substances such as mescaline serve to override the brain’s “reducing valve” that inhibits this sensory data, thereby allowing the human being to not just potentially remember everything they have ever experienced, and sense everything within their immediate environment, but also to access the entire information of the universe, perhaps even forwards and backwards in time, thereby suggesting that psychedelics could induce psi. To illustrate this point, Huxley took the title of his book from a quote by the English mystic, William Blake – “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Just prior to the publication of Huxley’s book, the American banker and amateur mycologist, Gordon Wasson, was fresh from his first trip to Mexico where he discovered both an active mushroom cult and the identity of Psilocybe cubensis as the sacrament. The Mazatec shaman, Don Aurelio, held a mushroom ceremony for Wasson and told him two important facts about his son in the US that neither of them could otherwise have known. Both of which were true, although one of which was still yet to happen, and later did so, thereby apparently demonstrating Don Aurelio’s accurate clairvoyance and precognition under the influence of psilocybin.
Similarly, in was the mid-1950’s that LSD began doing the rounds. And about ten years earlier Albert Hofmann who, when he discovered this drug, also discovered the exceptional psychological effects of LSD, and had had the first-ever LSD-induced out-of-body experience, when he found himself hovering above his body and assumed he had died. But these two tales of exceptional human experience from our foremost psychedelic pioneers are just the tip of the rabbit hole.
These numerous anecdotes found in anthropology and from the early psychedelic explorers soon began surfacing among psychotherapists as well, once these substances started seeping into the clinics. As just one example, Stanislav Grof - who we can credit as being the leading expert on psychedelic psychotherapy, having conducted over 4,000 psychedelic therapy sessions over the course of 20 years - reported observing past-life recall, Out-of-body experiences, and ESP on a daily basis. Thinking there might be something magical about these medicines that has been largely overlooked I conducted a comparison of spontaneous ESP phenomena that had good supporting evidence, occurring in the therapy room, both with and without psychedelics. Reports of spontaneous ESP occurring within ordinary psychotherapy were fairly rare, although definitely evident, but they were considerably more frequently reported by psychedelic psychotherapists during the 1960s.
Substantiating these anecdotal reports a number of surveys have been conducted that have consistently found a positive relationship between the report of having had a paranormal experience and the reported use of psychedelics, with heavier users reporting more experiences. What the surveys show is that between 18% and a staggering 83% of those reporting the use of cannabis and/or other psychedelics also reported ESP experiences occurring whilst actually under the influence. So we certainly have phenomena here that are worth investigating further.
A survey conducted by myself and my colleague at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Marios Kittenis, extended this research and explored the taxonomy of these phenomena to try and identify which drugs related to which experiences in particular. We found that, while psychedelics in general were associated with a range of transpersonal phenomena, particular substances were readily associated with particular experiences more than others. For instance, discarnate entity encounter experiences were very common to DMT, the active substance found in ayahuasca, whereas telepathy was common to cannabis, out-of-body experiences (OBEs) were typical of ketamine, and plant spirit encounters occurred with psilocybin-containing mushrooms in particular, as well as with a host of other psychedelic plants, such as Salvia divinorum, cannabis and mescaline-containing cacti (e.g., San Pedro).
However, since the prohibition of psychedelics in the late 1960’s most of this field of research, which I like to call “para-psychopharmacology”, has been conducted through surveys, and yet these have very little evidential value for the genuine occurrence of psi. Fortunately, the notion of using psychedelics to investigate parapsychology was a viable method before prohibition, and about a dozen or more controlled experiments were conducted at that time. Walter Pahnke, for instance, who famously conducted the “Good Friday” experiment at Harvard - which showed that psilocybin could induce genuine mystical experiences – also conducted an ESP experiment with LSD. The results were not significant overall, but Stan Grof, who was one of the participants, reported that he successfully described a remote target in each of three attempts. Grof aptly described the dissonance between the task and the experience that occurs to the psychedelic participant, a mixture of both complete acceptance and a simulatenous fear of psi.
However, Grof wasn’t the only one to have such experiences. Later, Walter Pahnke himself had his turn, although it appears he had to wait until after his death for this to happen. He apparently spoke to his late wife whilst she was engaged in an LSD psychotherapy session being held by Stan Grof and he informed her of the location of a lost book that Pahnke wanted returning to its owner now he was dead.
Returning to experimental research, overall, the catalogue of pharmacological-psi experiments from the sixties, which number about a dozen, showed some promising results. This success was usually in direct proportion to the sophistication of the methodology, with those studies that used simple and arduous experimental procedures and psychedelically-inexperienced participants returned poor results. Whereas those using engaging tasks and experienced trippers got the best outcomes, and this is probably because it is very difficult to get people to perform in a parapsychology experiment when they are caught in the middle of their first psychedelic ‘mystical rapture’. However, most of these experiments lacked the stringent degree of control expected by today’s standards and so also have limited evidential value.
Since that time only three or four experiments have been attempted and they have had mixed results. One of these was performed by Brazil’s own, Dr. Carlos Tinoco, who conducted a small study with ayahuasca, which fortunately does not share the same sanctions here in Brazil as those held elsewhere in the world against its sister plants and their associated chemicals. Following in the footsteps of many great researchers, I intend to expand on Dr Tinoco’s admirable research efforts while I am here in Brazil, and once more activate the field of para-psychopharmacology and the study of the neurochemistry of paranormal experiences.
My enthusiasm for this work has been stimulated by my own research into precognition, which I shall be discussing later. In this study my colleagues and I at the University of Northampton used a secure precognition design with 100 participants, and found that psi ability on our test correlated positively with the reported number of psychedelics consumed by the sample (rs = .27, p = .008, two-tailed). Although indirect, this adds further support to the positive anthropological, historical, anecdotal, survey-based and experimental evidence for the notion of sacramental plants and their related chemical compounds inducing psi and other paranormal phenomena.
However, at the present time the evidence for the genuine production of ESP is very basic and inconclusive, although promising. Far more research is required to make any firm conclusions, although the recent political climate surrounding psychedelics in most of the world has made such research difficult to pursue, and the last experiment was conducted over ten years ago in the Netherlands, where the drug laws and attitudes to psychedelic substances have been more liberal than elsewhere. Nevertheless, there is good support at least for the capacity of psychedelics to produce paranormal experiences, and with regard to OBEs and NDEs, these experiences themselves are the object of study.
Nevertheless, the tide of research is turning and in the last ten years dozens of psychedelic research projects with human participants have been initiated following a break of about 30 years. I am also pleased to announce a return to psychedelic research in parapsychology with my own projects. The launch of these projects brings the relationship between psychedelic and parapsychological research to full circle: Starting from the time in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when the Parapsychology Foundation in New York were funding the seminal psychedelic research projects at Harvard, until now, when psychedelic research foundations started funding parapsychology research.
This relationship is no accident. Psychedelic researchers since the time of Huxley and Osmond have been fascinated with exploring the apparently parapsychological affects of these substances. And rightly so, because the implications of such research for understanding our capabilities as a species, and for understanding reality itself, are deeply profound. Parapsycho-pharmacological research could also tell us a great deal about the possible neurochemistry and neurobiology of apparently psychic abilities or, at the very least, about experiences of psi, which we believe have been observed with these substances for thousands of years. It is highly likely that ALL altered states of consciousness, including potentially ESP-conducive states, involve alterations in brain chemistry, and as such, psychoactive drugs have their part to play in helping us to understand the neurochemistry underlying those states.
Indeed, a few psychedelic-neurochemical models have been proposed, based upon the subjective paranormal experiences occurring with certain substances and their specific neurochemical action. Additionally, it is entirely feasible that genuine paranormal experiences are mediated in the brain through the action of specific “endogenous” molecules, by which I mean molecules that are made within the body. This does not necessarily imply the simple reductionism that neurochemicals are the sole cause of paranormal phenomena, but, they may rather just be a part of the process. As the novelist Aldous Huxley once said in relation to mystical experiences and the use of psychedelics – “they are the occasion rather than the cause”.
And it is only now that some neuroscientific credibility has been gained for Huxley’s simplified notion of psychic abilities that becoming available through the psychedelic inhibition of the brain’s “reducing valve”, thereby opening up the awareness to an infinite field of information: An infinite field, that has been called the akashic record or morphogenetic field by others.
Recent human experiments conducted by the neuroscientist Dr. Vollenweider and his team in Zurich show that the serotonergic effect of psychedelic tryptamines can inhibit the “sensory gating” function of the brain, thereby opening up the floodgates to the mind and expanding one’s awareness of external sensory information. Furthermore, psychedelics are also thought to induce a pre-synaptic release of glutamate in the brain, leading to a simultaneous overload of internal information in the cortex.
It is thought that these combined information overload effects, from both within and from outside the brain, are at least partly responsible for the ‘hallucinogenic’ experience with these substances, as they are known to induce greatly altered or amplified incoming sensory information, which has been tested and supported experimentally. This disruption of the sensory gating function by psychedelics could also underpin the neurochemistry of ESP. And this may occur through the introduction of foreign psychedelic substances for the purpose of altering the state of consciousness, or it may occur without the intervention of such ‘exogenous’ (made externally) chemicals, through the activation of ‘endogenous’ chemicals that have been made within the brain.
Indeed, like psychedelics, psi experiences and phenomena have often been thought of in relation to an inhibition of the ordinary sensory inhibition, so that they stop the things that stop us experiencing too much. This conception of psi is often considered in conjunction with elevated psychosis and creativity, such as with the concepts of latent disinhibition, transliminality, boundary thinness and schizotypy. And like psi-experiences, psychedelics have also been long associated with both creativity and psychosis.
However, despite the simplistic appeal of Huxley’s “anti-reducing valve” action of psychedelics as a neurochemical model of psi, there still remains extensive gaps in our current understanding of the neuro-pharmacological action of psychedelics in humans. Since the early 1970s practically all psychedelic research has been conducted with animals and there remains no definitive generalisations that can be made about the main neurotransmitter receptor sites involved. This is because psychedelics vary considerably in their chemical makeup and their receptor site action. A considerable amount of more research, particularly with humans, is needed to more fully understand the neurobiological action of these substances.
Nevertheless, there are number of models of paranormal experience that are restricted to the neurochemistry of particular substances. Given the limitations of time, I shall restrict myself to just two that relate to the neurochemistry of ayahuasca, the oldest of which is a model put forward by my colleague in England, Dr. Serena Roney-Dougal. Advancing on older suggestions made about the pineal gland’s involvement in psi Roney-Dougal has developed a neurochemical-perspective of psi, based on the action of the pineal gland and several substances found in ayahuasca, the visionary Amazonian brew reported to induce a range of paranormal experiences.
The common neurotransmitter serotonin – which can be thought of as a substrate of consciousness because of its importance in higher cognitive functions – is known to be most abundant in the pineal gland. Here it follows a circadian rhythm and is converted at night into melatonin and the β-carboline called pinoline, which are known to regulate sleep cycles. The pineal may also create other β-carbolines, termed harmala alkaloids.
These β-carbolines block the neuronal uptake of serotonin, making it available for use, and inhibit the enzyme, monoamine oxydase (MAO), which breaks down certain tryptamines such as serotonin, and N,N-dimethyl tryptamine (which we call DMT). MAO inhibiters, such as pinoline or the harmala alkaloids, make serotonin available at the pineal gland where, with the aid of pineal enzymes (methyl transferases), serotonin can also be converted into DMT, 5-methoxy-dimethyl tryptamine (which we call 5-MeO-DMT), and 5-hydroxy-dimethyltyptamine (known as 5-HO-DMT, or bufotenine).
These three DMT substances are ‘endogenous’ visionary chemicals – made in the body – and are also found in certain ingredientsof ayahuasca brews, and also in other shamanic visionary substances - Some of which may even be of animal origin, such as the Sonoran desert toad, called Bufo alvarius, from which bufotenine gets its name. However, these endogenous visionary tryptamines are not orally active, as they are broken down by the MAO enzymes present in the stomach. Consequently, ayahuasca brews also contains plant additives, such as Banisteriopsis caapi, known as the ayahuasca vine, which contain a range of harmala alkaloids that inhibit the MAO present in the stomach, and allow the visionary DMT substances to be reach the brain where they have profound effects on consciousness. It is this action of the β-carbolines (particularly harmine) in ayahuasca that is these days considered their primary purpose as admixtures in the brew, and the DMT substances are considered to the most visionary part.
For thousands of years, Amazonian shamans have been mixing these two chemical sources together by using a very select combination of plants, yet this feat seems incredibly unlikely, given the enormous range of plants available in the Amazon region. The anthropologist, Jeremy Narby, has estimated that the likelihood of discovering this plant combination by accident is several-billion-to-one. When asked, the Amazonian shamans have said that the plants themselves told their ancestors what to do.
So, based on what is known about the psychoactivity of these chemicals, Roney-Dougal suggested that the combination of pinoline, or harmala alkaloids, and DMT in particular could induce psi-conducive states: i.e., either naturally during dreams - because the neurochemistry of the pineal gland is known to be important in regulating sleep and possibly dreams too - or artificially, by causing waking dream-type states, such as occur when drinking ayahuasca.
In essence, ayahuasca contains two types of visionary chemicals, one type (β-carbolines, such as harmine) that helps to both activate the effects of, and create the other type of chemical, the DMT-substances. In this manner ayahuasca copies the nocturnal chemistry of the pineal gland and its supposed control over natural visionary states, such as dreams, spontaneous mystical experiences, and near-death experiences.
Roney-Dougal also draws parallels between the Indian yogic system’s treatment of the pineal gland as a source of psychic ability, and indicates that the pineal gland is sensitive to the same fluctuations in geomagnetic activity that appear to be associated with spontaneous psi-activity.
That the pineal gland is central to psi is also supported by the anthropological research I have already mentioned, that suggests that DMT and the harmala alkaloids found in ayahuasca are psi-conducive. Furthermore, clinical research suggests that pinoline and melatonin regulate sleep cycles and dreaming, during which spontaneous psi experiences most often occur.
Some tentative support for the notion that ESP performance is directly predicted by pineal gland activity is also evident with experimental research that demonstrated children under the age of 12 score better on ESP tests at 3am, when the pineal gland’s nocturnal chemicals are at peak concentrations in the brain, rather than at 9pm at night. This effect was not evident with a comparable group of older-aged children, as might be expected, because the pineal is less active after infancy.
It has also been suggested that pineal gland deformity is responsible for the renowned divinatory skills of the Andean Kogi-Indian shaman, who spend either first 9, or sometimes even the first 18 years of their life in isolation in total darkness. It is speculated that this eternal childhood night time causes a considerable over-production of melatonin, pinoline and DMT within the brain.
Roney-Dougal also draws parallels between the ostensibly psi-conducive nature of the shamanic trance state, psychotic states, psychedelic states, and the dream state, which, she suggests, all belong to the same continuum. Recently, the discovery of trace amine receptors in the brain for which DMT shows greater affinity for than does serotonin – its more common neuro-amine cousin – has lead to a resurgence of interest in brain DMT in the mediation of mental health. DMT’s pineal action has also been proposed as the fundamental brain mechanism behind near-death experiences by the American researcher Dr. Rick Strassman.
Strassman is the only researcher since the 1960’s to have conducted extensive research investigating the effects of DMT in humans after injecting intravenous DMT into volunteers. Based on this research he has independently hypothesized a role for DMT similar to that suggested by Roney-Dougal. Strassman has echoed the same neurobiological action of the pineal gland as Roney-Dougal, and similarly suggests that psychotic, dream, meditation, and mystical states all occur through the overproduction of DMT, indicating that DMT is what he calls a “reality thermostat”.
However, Strassman also indicates that the pineal gland and endogenous DMT are central during extraordinary events such as birth, death, and the near-death experience (NDE). To support this view Strassman notes that the anatomy of the pineal gland, suspended in cerebrospinal fluid outside of the blood-bathed brain, is independent enough to resist activation by normal stresses, and it is also optimally positioned to deliver DMT directly to the middle brain regions. Furthermore, access to the brain in this way eliminates the need for DMT transportation in the blood – where it would be broken down by MAO enzymes anyway – so it also does not need a pumping heart for delivery, and may continue to be active in the brain even after the heart has stopped beating.
It has also been noted that DMT is virtually unique among endogenous neurotransmitters in that it is a molecule small enough to have blood-brain barrier permeability. Melatonin, on the other hand exerts its influence slowly over a period of a day or more, and so does not need the pineal gland’s unique location, and this further supports the supposed post-mortem function of DMT, which Strassman speculates is continued to be made for a few hours after death.
To support his theory, Strassman also notes that the NDE has psychedelic and mystical qualities in common with the DMT experience. For instance, some of his DMT study participants reported NDEs and death-rebirth experiences, with many others reporting a new absence of fear of death. However, these experiences may have been primed because the participants in Strassman’s research were told in the briefing to expect feelings of death or impending death. Nonetheless, I have conducted an independent survey of paranormal experiences with psychedelics and found that DMT users sometimes do report death-like and near-death-type experiences.
Perhaps most interestingly, Strassman was surprised to find that many of the participants in his DMT study reported contact with sentient beings during the experience, often described as elves, dwarves, imps, gremlins, clowns, reptilian beings, and aliens, but also as spirits, gods, or even just as a presence, and commonly this was supremely powerful, wise, and loving. Such prevalent encounter experiences with DMT use are seemingly so unique and reliable that the impish characters have been popularly named the “self-transforming machine elves”, and their tangible existence has been hotly debated by other DMT-experience researchers.
What Strassman also suggests is that changes in endogenous DMT levels are also responsible for the frequent occurrence of alien abduction experiences, which share many of the same features as DMT experiences. Such as the new-found fearlessness of death and visions of energy tunnels, or cylinders of light. Other researchers have also noted the similarity between NDEs, traditional psychedelic-induced shamanic initiations, alien abduction experiences, and heightened psychic sensitivity. However, some researchers, such as Ivants Barušs have pointed out that, despite the similarities, DMT and alien abduction experiences lack specific similarities, such as the absence with DMT of the classic small grey aliens, called greys.
Nevertheless, other researchers such as the popular writer Graham Hancock, argue that there are substantial similarities between aliens and elves, whether induced through DMT or else appearing in historic-folkloric legends and testimonies. And Hancock speculates that the historical elf experiences also have a DMT-induced cause and that these elf encounters of old are the prototype alien encounter or abduction experience. It might be worth mentioning that very few experiencers actually ever doubt the reality of their encounters with either aliens or DMT entities, and most actually consider them to be more real than most ordinary experiences.
The similarities between DMT experiences and sleep paralysis experiences also deserves mentioning, although this far nobody to my knowledge has investigated this. Of particular interest to this under-researched subject are the effects experienced from the use of 5HO-DMT, also known as bufotenine, which is thought to also occur naturally in the pineal gland.
In evaluation of the role of the pineal gland and endogenous psychedelics in the activation of psi and the NDE, it has still yet to be shown that psi can be produced with these substances under controlled conditions. In addition, both psi experiences and NDEs might be induced with other psychoactive substances, such as the theory of ketamine-induced NDEs. Furthermore, although there is good support for the hypothesis that DMT is made in the human pineal, this is yet to be proven and remains speculative, like many of Strassman’s and Roney-Dougal’s suppositions at the present time. Nevertheless, despite their incompleteness, the pineal- DMT models of psi and NDE do offer unique neurochemical perspectives on paranormal experience around which further research can be framed. Additionally, although neither Strassman or Roney-Dougal has commented publicly on the others’ ideas, their models are not incompatible with each other, however, they may begin to answer the question of why visionary molecules such as DMT are made within humans at all.
In evaluating the evidence presented here, one thing seems certain. That although the study of the paranormal experiences encountered through the use of sacramental plants may be able to inform us enormously about the neurochemistry of these experiences, it is unlikely, however, that this knowledge will ever be able to fully answer the question of how psi works. This is because there are likely to be a number of psychological, ontological and possibly spiritual factors also involved in the production of these experiences that we do not yet understand, at least not scientifically. And in studying these substances it should not be forgotton that these plants have for many years been used spiritually, as sacraments.
Nevertheless, in looking to the future, the study of sacramental plants and the re-emerging field of para-psychopharmacology can help us understand what may be happening in the brain when these experiences occur, and furthermore, if these experiences can be shown to occur fairly reliably, then this can aid us immensely in reproducing these phenomena on demand, under controlled conditions, so that they can be better studied and understood. In working with these plants in both a scientific and harmonious manner we can hope that Mother Nature can help us better understand some of the mysteries of the universe.