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What Nitrous Oxide Showed The Father of American Psychology

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What Nitrous Oxide Showed The Father of American Psychology

William James, often called “the father of American psychology,” isn’t as well-remembered as his European colleagues, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. And that’s a shame, says David Yaden, especially for folks who see themselves as part of “the psychedelic renaissance.”

Yaden, a newly appointed assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, hopes to increase awareness of James’ work with the publication of The Varieties of Spiritual Experience — 21st Century Research and Perspectives, which came out this month from Oxford University Press. His co-author is Dr. Andrew Newberg, the author of such best-selling books as How God Changes Your Brain and Why God Won’t Go Away

The title of their new book is an obvious take-off on James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. James argued that scientists should study — and not just dismiss — both the triggers and consequences of spiritual experiences that millions of Americans were having in his lifetime, including sudden feelings of mystical oneness, psychic contact with dead relatives, claims of mental telepathy, or a belief in what was then known as the “mind cure.”

As for drug-induced mysticism, James is best-remembered for altering his own consciousness via the inhalation of nitrous oxide. He apparently tried mescaline, but says he only got a headache. But nitrous showed him this: 

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness.

James (1848-1910) taught at Harvard University. He remains popular among today’s psychonauts because he thought it didn’t really matter what triggered a mystical experience — prayer, meditation, stress, God, or drugs. What mattered was that the experience inspired a happier and more productive and compassionate life. His was a pragmatic approach. Don’t get hung up on “the roots.” Judge the experience by “the fruits.” 

William James was the brother of the famous novelist, Henry James, and a brilliant writer himself. Their father, Henry James, Sr., was a Christian mystic who hung out with some of the leading lights of the 19th century New England intelligentsia, such as the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

Yaden works at the Johns Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research with one of his mentors, Roland Griffiths, to whom the new book is dedicated. Lucid News sat down with Yaden via Zoom for an interview, which has been condensed, edited and otherwise rearranged here:

Your interest in understanding powerful religious experiences was prompted, at least in part, by a personal encounter in 2004 with a spontaneous spiritual force as a young college student in your dorm room. You say that psychedelic drugs were not involved in your undergraduate revelation. Can you tell me about that experience?

It came out of nowhere, although I was in a state of adolescent angst. “Who am I and what do I want to do with my life?” It was a time of searching, a transitional period. This heat began in my chest. At first I thought it was indigestion, but the heat spread over my entire body and a voice in my mind said, “This is love.” I was no longer aware of my body and felt I could see 360 degrees around me. An infinite horizon. There were intricate patterns that I was indistinguishable from. It may have gone on for a few minutes, but it felt like hours or longer. I opened my eyes and was laughing and crying at the same time. Then there was the question, “What the fuck just happened to me?”

What, if anything, do you think this religious experience had to do with your religious upbringing?

My intuition, which I question, is that it had very little to do with it. I was raised Presbyterian in a small town in rural New Jersey. We could walk down the hill to one of the two churches in town. It was a wonderful community of people. The minister believed in evolution and showed me how to use Napster. Very liberal. But at an easy age I started questioning those [Christian] beliefs. 

What do you consider yourself now?

Before my experience, in high school, I would have considered myself an atheist. After the experience I was a believer in some kind of supernatural realm. Eventually, I rejected my belief in those things and became an agnostic when it comes to the nature of consciousness and the supernatural. 

How did your study of William James enable you to understand your experience? 

His book was an intellectual revelation and a great relief. It made me understand that a lot of people have had these experiences across history and across cultures. James also showed that you can study these things. He laid out a whole framework to study experiences and how they affect people’s lives. About a third of Americans have had these experiences. A lot of people will say they had a ‘God’ experience, but did they have a dramatic change in consciousness, as opposed to people who believe strongly but have not had a drastically altered state of consciousness. 

What would James think of what’s happening in the current psychedelic revival?

He would have been wildly fascinated. He tried mescaline, at least he said he did. He said “I’ll have to take the visions on trust.” But he was willing to do a psychedelic. He was very interested in nitrous oxide and its revelatory effects. James would rent out a theater and his colleagues would try to give a monologue after taking nitrous. He called it the strongest emotion in his life. Contradictions melted into unity. He called it an artificial mystic state of mind, “artificial” only in what triggers it. But the feelings were profound and positive and the revelations potentially pointed to something real about reality. 

While James was open to the paranormal, didn’t he conclude that most of the spiritualists he studied in his time were charlatans?

He thought if he could find one demonstrable, replicable psychic phenomena it would up-end our understanding of how the mind works and how reality works. But he failed in that, so he was in the role of debunker and finding charlatans. But his personal conclusion and his professional conclusion are quite different. His personal conclusion is based on the philosophy of pragmatism. If something is unknowable, but there are good consequences in your life to believing it, then you have the right to believe that thing. He is willing to make the leap of faith, which may have been a phrase he coined. He says, on that basis, I choose to believe. 

In a recent paper, you and your Hopkins colleague Roland Griffiths warn that “the psychedelic hype bubble” is about to burst, if it hasn’t already.

There’s something about these fascinating altered states that lead people to exaggerate one way or another. Some will say these are delusions, have no value whatsoever, and are signs of mental illness. Freud said this. And then you have people saying these are transformative experiences. These are the most important moments and they can heal whatever ails you. Carl Jung almost went there. James provides a template for a much more nuanced way of thinking. And this fits the data. Some people benefit greatly, some don’t benefit at all, and some have adverse effects. James tells the full story. And with psychedelics, that’s what we need to do now — tell the full story. 

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