One of the hallmarks of psychedelic use is how difficult it is to talk about. Not only do the insights that come defy expression, but under the influence many people have paranormal encounters that challenge our consensus view of reality. This may be one reason why such widespread experiences have received so little academic attention.
David Luke, a senior lecturer in psychology at University of Greenwich and noted author on the intersection of the paranormal and psychedelics, has now completed the first comprehensive review of scientific literature covering this under-analyzed terrain.
In a paper published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Luke proposes a comprehensive framework for classifying and analyzing the strange sensory phenomena induced by psychedelics. In the process, he explores the implications these strange experiences have for psychology, neuroscience, and our understanding of spirituality.
Luke organizes the phenomena into ten categories: synesthesia, extra-dimensional percepts, Out-of-Body Experiences, Near-Death Experiences, entity encounters, alien abduction, sleep paralysis, interspecies communication, possession, and psi (which includes telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis).
It may seem like a grab bag of Coast-to-Coast AM topics, but their persistent presence in the scientific literature about psychedelics dates back to the 1950s.
Luke uses the word “anomalous” to refer to modes of perception that are uncommon and “believed to deviate from ordinary experience or from usually accepted explanations of reality according to Western mainstream science.”
The paper includes some intriguing findings:
- 57% of recreational psychedelic users experienced synesthesia, with LSD and psilocybin being the most likely to induce it.
- Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are reported by 44% of psychoactive drug users, 54% of cannabis users, and 62% of ayahuasca users.
- Near-death-experiences (NDEs), which commonly feature OBEs, were reported by 32% of psychedelic users.
- 64% of first-time ayahuasca users report visual perceptions that contradict “ordinary real-world Euclidean geometry.”
- 19% of psychedelic users have had a mediumistic experience.
Entity encounters of various stripes are prevalent among psychedelic users. Communion with plant “spirits” are the most common, and is a core experience within traditional shamanism. Surveys show that an encounter with the spirit of the plant ingested was the most widely reported by those taking magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, salvia divinorum, and amanita muscaria.
Often the message communicated by the plants is “ecological,” Luke writes in the report, “rebuking humanity for its widespread destruction of natural habitats.”
Psychedelic users also report experiencing a range of psi phenomena, including telepathy and precognition.
Lucid News spoke with David Luke about the study and its implications for future research.
Why did you want to do this survey?
I think this is an unexplored subject area, which is extraordinary because these experiences are actually extremely common, particularly with psychedelics. We also get them in other states of consciousness, but especially with psychedelics. And yet in this recent research renaissance we’re having, these experiences haven’t really been explored. But in fact, all the original explorers of psychedelics, the discoverers and inventors, they all have their own kind of paranormal, anomalous experiences. Albert Hofmann had an out of body experience in which he thought he was dying, like a near death experience, on his first acid trip. And he had synesthesia as well.
When ayahuasca was first isolated for its active chemicals, it was named telepathine. All of these substances, when they’re first discovered by western explorers, have their own accounts of anomalous experiences. In my survey research, I’ve come up with numerous accounts of people having these experiences. Something like 50% of people have experiences of telepathy with psychedelics. Yet it’s not really being researched. So I thought it needs to be out there.
If researchers and the therapeutic community paid more attention to psychedelics-induced anomalous experiences, what might the consequences be?
There’s myriad answers to that. If people are having these experiences and they have no knowledge of them, or their therapist has no knowledge of them, then how are they going to assimilate that and integrate it into their daily life?
There needs to be some kind of roadmap out there for people to catalogue and classify these experiences, and know they’re not going mad. They’re able to recognize it as an experience or a syndrome. That will help them integrate what we might call exceptional experiences. If people know that these experiences exist and are actually quite common with psychedelics, you can avoid the pitfalls of just demonizing or ignoring them. That knowledge can actually help lead towards a better kind of personal transformation.
My own personal reasons are a bit beyond that, to try and marry science and shamanism. And to explore the experiences that the users of the substances have been talking about for millennia in an honest and open way. Is there any kind of general reality to these experiences?
If these experiences are so common, one wonders why they haven’t been part of the discourse. Is something happening now that might make them more available to open discussion?
The field of parapsychology and aligned fields have been very much sidelined because they are a perceived threat to the dominant paradigm in western science and medicine, which is materialist reductionism. These experiences don’t fit easily within that model, so they’ve been ignored.
But now we’re seeing psychedelics being reintroduced into the western pharmacopeia. The genie is out of the bottle, right? You can’t just ignore these experiences anymore. You’re going to have to confront them, and at least try to integrate them, if not understand them. It’s important and valuable that these experiences get a good airing right now.
Are you seeing more scientists and researchers approaching these experiences the way you have in this study?
Kind of. There’s been a lot of attention given to the mystical experience, because we know from the research, particularly with the Johns Hopkins team, that it has efficacy [in therapy]. It seems to be indicative of great clinical success for various treatments, from addiction to depression and end-of-life anxiety. But the main narrative doesn’t normally include anomalous experiences.
However, the research team at Imperial College London, for instance, are now taking an interest in models of Near Death Experiences. So there is a growing interest, even from a purely scientific perspective, as well as the clinical side, to engage with these experiences a bit more, at least mystical experiences and Near Death Experiences. Some of the stuff I listed in my paper is probably a bit weirder than that. We’re starting to see an engagement with these experiences, at least now. They can be shown to be a beneficial part of the package of the psychedelic experience.
What is the study’s most important take away?
That our mind is far vaster than we ordinarily consider. We walk around in our ordinary, everyday reality bubble, a very prescribed range of experience. Then you have these other experiences that can quite literally blow your mind. And they don’t necessarily need to do that, because in certain world views they’re very much part and parcel of their kind of reality, such as shamanic and indigenous communities.
They broaden the limits of what we think the mind is capable of, which is not a bad thing. If we want to have a real psychology of human experience, we can’t just ignore all of these experiences. Unfortunately, psychology just looks at normal, everyday states, or what happens when things go wrong, and ignores the other end of the spectrum of exceptional experience.
In your study, you say that people have these experiences without psychedelics. What is it about psychedelics that makes these experiences more available to people?
It generally takes a lot more work to get to these kinds of states without psychedelics, through practices like meditation, or spending a long amount of time in a dark room. Psychedelics can give you access to extremely potent, odd states very rapidly. Just as long as it takes to put a tab of acid on your tongue. But I think you can access all of these experiences through other states. You have to put in the work, or you have to be under a lot of duress. People might have these experiences through Near Death, trauma, grief, or stress. It has to be quite a heavy load.
Do you feel that these experiences are intrinsic to being human?
Yeah, you probably could say that. People feel that their ordinary reality is intrinsic to us being human. Then they have these experiences, and it extends their conception of what it is to be human. Often people feel that they are tapping into a more real, profound state of being. They usually come back from these experiences saying, “That was more real than ordinary, everyday real.” So it both extends and cements people’s notion of what it means to be human.
Someone with a materialist, reductionist perspective would say that these are just hallucinations and not real. Do you think of these as mere hallucinations? Or are they more than just our imagination?
Well, the term hallucination is a great wastebasket term. It’s used in a kind of offhand way, not to explain things, but to explain them away. These experiences have been labeled hallucinations for the last 50 years, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the kind of extraordinary nuance or complexity they possess.
So, when we begin to dig into them, there is a whole range of different experiences which we could catalogue under hallucination. But it begs us, as honest scientists, to try and understand these experiences a little deeper and more openly, so that we don’t just count them off as delusions, and at least explore them at face value.
If people are genuinely, say, having experiences of higher dimensional percepts – is that possible? Is there something to be understood and gained by asking that? Perhaps mathematicians and theoretical physicists could learn something from these experiences about typography and dimensional space, and so on and so forth. Should we just discount them off the bat? No, certainly not. I think we need to try and understand them, and maybe learn from them.
What some people might say to that is: “Of course you’re having crazy experiences because you took a very powerful drug, and now you’re imagining this. It’s all a projection.”
I think that it depends how much credit we give to the imagination. If your mind is infinite, then yes, maybe it’s just all a projection of your mind. But it accesses parts of the mind in ways we don’t even believe is possible. We certainly have to then pay attention to the possibility that our mind can transcend time and space.
If you look at the examples of precognition or telepathy in the paper, they suggest that the mind, or your imagination, is capable of genuinely accessing real information beyond the confines of your ordinary sense experience. So it depends how you delimit or limit the imagination. But what is the imagination in that sense, and what is the mind, right? Once we open the lid on that box, it’s going to take us down an interesting rabbit hole. The evidence from parapsychology is vast and growing.
What kind of reception would you like the paper to see? Who is it for, and how would you like them to respond?
It’s for psychologists, it’s for psychedelic researchers, psychiatrists, philosophers, and anyone it’s applicable to. I’m not saying we need to necessarily revamp our model of the mind. But I want to see other researchers actively, at least for the first time, addressing some of these experiences, rather than just ignoring them. I’d like to see other people at least attending to these extraordinary experiences.
Because they happen a lot. And if we don’t consider them, then there’s going to be a lot of people just scrambling around trying to make sense of their own psychedelic experiences. Particularly as psychedelics enter the mainstream.
So yeah. Everybody should get this paper.