David Luke is a parapsychology researcher at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes, at the University of Northampton in the UK, where he researches paranormal beliefs and experiences, particularly in the context of altered states, such as via dreams and drugs. He and collaborator Marios Kittenis recently published "A preliminary survey of paranormal experiences with psychoactive drugs" in the Journal of Parapsychology, which reports on the responses from a 2005 survey of psychedelic drug users conducted via MAPS and other outlets. I recently had the chance to ask him about some of his findings.
JK: Looking at the percentages of particular paranormal phenomena reported by drug type -- such as psychedelics and mystical experience (44%) and relaxants and OBEs (36%) -- do you think this hints at the possibility of specific phenomenon being directly linked to specific receptor interactions within the brain?
DL: It would be hard to deny that there are specific neurotransmitter pathways being activated by different drugs, but it would take further research to answer your question directly. This is because it is not yet known whether it is the specific neurochemical action of the drug that causes these experiences directly or whether it is due to the states that they engender. These states may come about through a great variety of means, other than drugs, though it is conceivable that all altered states involve particular neurochemical changes. Nevertheless, These figures represent the percentage of people in the sample ever having these experiences on these drugs at any time in their life. The actual frequency with which they occur is generally quite low, usually just occasionally, although a few experiences seem to occur quite often with specific substances -- such as the experience of telepathy with cannabis and plant-entity encounters with psilocybin containing mushrooms -- but there might be stronger psychological or even transpersonal explanations for such experiences. You might expect these experiences to be more reliably repeatable if the specific neurochemistry were the only cause. Clearly set, setting, expectation, motivation, and maybe even some fundamentally esoteric properties of our ontology are at work -- because these experiences might actually be 'real' in some sense.
One way in which we might begin to distinguish between neurochemical and psychological-state causes of such experiences would be to conduct ESP experiments with people under the influence of a particular drug and compare their performance and experience to people who were reliving the experience under-post hypnotic suggestion. Fortunately this technique now appears more viable. Arthur Hastings of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California recently published a paper in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2006, 38, 273-283) indicating success at re-inducing full MDMA experiences through post-hypnotic suggestion. ESP experiments could be applied to such a technique and begin to answer your question further.
I noticed that relaxants polled just as high or even higher than psychedelics, dissociatives, and empathogens in terms of overall psi response, yet in the terms of this study relaxants are ambiguously defined as substances similar to GHB. How was the class "relaxants" defined to the survey group. Did it surprise you that this class polled so high in psi response across the board?
For this study we defined relaxants as drugs -- such as kava kava and GHB, or GBL -- not falling into any of the other categories. Yes it did surprise us to see that such a group of drugs was the only one to give us any correlation between ESP experience frequency and the reported frequency of consumption, but this relationship was very small and probably artefactual, as there were so few people in our sample reporting use of these substances, and neither was there anyone reporting any specific experiences with these substances. It seems the same artefact may apply for all the correlations between the frequency of relaxant-consumption and paranormal experience, perhaps with the exception of entity-encounter experience. It might seem surprising that this last experience is concomitant with use of these drugs, but outside of this survey I have heard reports of people with GBL habits who quit and had extremely bizarre withdrawal effects -- open-eye 'hallucinations' of elves clambering around for hours fixing non-existent plumbing, that sort of thing. So entity encounters may be a genuine correlate of lactone use, or more specifically a sudden lack of lactone use.
In your discussion of the results you note that, "There were also varying degrees of near-significant correlations between Death (NDE), non-Causality, and Entity-experiences with the frequency of use of relaxants, dissociatives, and psychedelics." Isn't this just another way of saying that the more often you do it the farther out you get?
Yes, that's certainly a simpler way of putting it. Higher frequency of consumption of specific types of drugs leads to a higher frequency of specific transpersonal or paranormal experiences, like meeting entities on DMT. These results are consistent with the notion that it isn't something particular to the people who use these substances that causes them to report more experiences, but rather that it is the use of the drugs themselves that increases their propensity to have these experiences. I don't think this is news to most people who have taken quantities of psychedelics, say, but strangely this finding has been almost completely unreported anywhere in scientific journals, except in the context of cannabis-induced thought-transmission experiences as symptoms of psychosis. Clearly lots of people are having such paranormal experiences with psychedelic-type drugs without it causing them psychosis, or else everyone who took these drugs would be in psychiatric care, yet these drug-induced experiences are virtually never discussed within the scientific community. I can only imagine that there are thousands or even millions of people having chemically-inspired paranormal-type experiences and yet it calmly passes without even a whisper within academia.
What was the biggest surprise you found in the survey?
One thing that did surprise me was the virtual absence of reports of telepathy and other ESP phenomena with ayahuasca and DMT, because ayahuasca is reputedly quite potent in inducing telepathic and clairvoyant experiences. One of the active principles, harmaline, was even called 'telepathine' when it was first isolated from this decoction in the 1920s. However, the lack of this association may be due to the small number of people reporting ayahuasca use in our survey. I would like to ask more people about their experience with this before making any conclusions.
What are you working on next?
As a parapsychologist I'm interested in following up the potential of these substances in accompanying genuine psychic phenomena, such as ESP, psychokinesis and psychic healing, though it is obviously difficult to conduct direct research in this area. I've found an interesting relationship between ESP task performance and reports of psychedelic drug consumption in a precognition experiment recently, but this needs verifying. Next, I'm planning to go to Madagascar, South Africa and the Amazon to conduct experimental psi research within traditional healing ceremonies and the like and hope to compare psychoactive plant using communities with non-plant using communities. I think in order to investigate this area in any depth there is a need to return to the source, so to speak.
I'm going to be using quite a novel approach by observing the output of true random event generators, called fieldREGs, and seeing if healers can bring some order out of the chaos. Obviously this isn't directly comparable to healing organic systems but it may give us some clue as to what healers are capable of, or not, though conveniently this is a portable and non-intrusive means of investigating psi in the field. I hope to back up this method with some more traditional remote viewing type ESP tests with people who claim they can utilise clairvoyance and the like, with and without plants to help them. I might be gone for a while.
Reference: A preliminary survey of paranormal experiences with psychoactive drugs By David P. Luke and Marios Kittenis (2005). Journal of Parapsychology, 69 (2), 305-327.