A story that has received considerable attention in the media over the past few weeks celebrates the 50th anniversary of what was originally advertised as the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” in upstate New York. In keeping with the 1960s counter cultural aim of establishing an “Age of Aquarius,” the festival was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition” and “3 Days of Peace and Music.” As I was working in New York City at the time, it was not difficult for me to attend the festival, which I did. The story of what happened is well known and has been widely discussed. What was supposed to be an audience optimistically estimated at perhaps 50,000 people turned into a gathering of some 400,000 who came together to hear music performed by many of the cutting-edge artists of the time. The overall mood of the audience was one of cooperation and realization of mutual aims devoted to opposing racism and war and promoting love and peace. In spite of the sometimes chaotic organization of the entire affair, there was virtually no violence. The vast group of young people and the temporary city that grew up around the festival stage showed the world that perhaps a different kind of society was indeed possible, free from the economic and social assumptions that plagued the world.
Psychotropic drugs, and hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mescaline in particular, played an important role in promoting the quasi-religious atmosphere that prevailed at the festival. Indeed, the connection between hallucinatory thinking and religious experience is a close one going back to the very beginnings of human culture. The word “hallucination” was a neologism coined by the great Sir Thomas Browne in a chapter of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) in which he discussed the proposition, apparently current at the time, that all moles are blind. He thought not. In the article entitled “Of Moles,” he considered several kinds of visual problems to which he assigned different names. For example, he wrote that if vision is “depraved and receive[s] its objects erroneously—hallucination.” Of course hallucinations had been described for hundreds of years even if, prior to Browne, they were not named as such. The occurrence of a hallucination in an individual was always interpreted in a religious context. More often than not, the victim was thought to be possessed by a devil or evil spirit. But this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, many great religious leaders have experienced hallucinations and they have been interpreted as the receipt of important information from a deity.
One can see how this played out historically, and how it was eventually closely associated with the development of the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s. In the last four centuries, for example, there were several important religious figures who experienced marked hallucinations and used them as part of their religious message. This was certainly true of the influential 17th century theosophist Jacob Boehme and of the mystical leader Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. Of course the figure who was widely appropriated by the 1960s counter culture movement was that of William Blake. Blake suffered from hallucinations throughout his life—of angels sitting in the trees, for example. Moreover, his revolutionary technical advances in print making were inspired by visions of his deceased younger brother who provided him with technical information. The kind of mystical world inhabited by Blake was a powerful contrast to the burgeoning Enlightenment by which he was surrounded. This is certainly clear in his art—which can obviously be seen by comparing a picture by Blake to one painted by the great portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was his contemporary.
But things go a lot deeper than that. Blake completely rejected the intellectual underpinnings of the Enlightenment saying things such as “I must not reason and compare: my business is to create.” Blake had no time for science which he thought was a force that constrained the mind and reduced human creativity. Blake took issue with important Enlightenment figures such as Newton and Locke, satirizing them in his mythical universe as Urizen—a character who pedantically stifled creativity through the rule of law and rational thinking. Blake famously portrayed Newton situated in a cave where, as in Plato’s Republic, he was only aware of the shadows of reality.
Mystical thinkers like Blake, Swedenborg and Boehme were part of an entire intellectual history which has been called the Western Esoteric Tradition, which, as opposed to science, deals much more with myth and mysticism as an explanation for the world. The fact that this tradition has gone from strength to strength over the years in the face of extraordinary advances in our scientific understanding of Nature speaks to what must surely be some important advantages it must have for human society. Indeed, thinkers such as CG Jung strongly believed that mystical thinking and beliefs were actually hard-wired into the human psyche and had important functions for human cognition. Although present throughout history, organizations that encouraged non-rationalist thinking underwent a strong resurgence during the 19th century, particularly in association with the establishment of the Theosophical society by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. The actual factual basis for Madame Blavatsky’s religion as detailed in her books Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine,that she received information telepathically from Tibetan adepts living in the Himalayas which engendered her theory of human evolution and her ideas about contact with the spiritual world,would clearly seem like complete nonsense to anybody with modern scientific training. Nevertheless, in spite of this, Blavatsky’s ideas have proven to be enormously influential with people who are not invested in a scientific outlook of the world and are receptive to ideas of a mystical nature. For example, the Theosophical notion that thoughts actually had shapes and colors, as detailed by Blavatsky’s successors Annie Besant and William Leadbetter in their book Thought-Forms, provided a powerful stimulus to people like Hilma af Klint, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky who were all committed Theosophists and developed non-representational modern painting.
It is this type of thinking that can be enabled in individuals by hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. As Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.” Many others, including Aldous Huxley in his study of mescaline use, have subsequently used “The Doors of Perception” as an allusion to the use of hallucinogenic drugs, allowing imaginative and creative thought that is not shackled by rational thinking.
Indeed, hallucinogenic drugs have always been associated with religious thinking. When the Spaniards first conquered Mexico in the 16th century, they quickly became aware that the religions of the indigenous peoples relied to a great extent on the use of hallucinogens in the ceremonies. Great scholars like the marrano priest Bernardino de Sahagun—who produced the 16th century Florentine Codex, an anthropological text describing the societies of the indigenous Mexican populations—described the use of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms, ergot alkaloid-containing morning glory seeds, and mescaline-containing hallucinogenic cacti such as peyote (Lophophora Williamsi) by shamans when they conducted religious ceremonies. Many of these practices disappeared from plain view following the Spanish conquests, although they continued to be practiced in small villages out of the direct view of the conquistadors. However, this wasn’t the end of things. They were rediscovered in the 20th century by people such as Gordon Wasson who wrote about his findings in widely distributed articles such as his influential 1957 article “Seeking the magic mushroom” in Life Magazine.
One of the people that read the article was a young faculty member in the Psychology department at Harvard university named Timothy Leary. Leary journeyed to Mexico and sampled some psilocybin mushrooms. The experience had a profound effect on him and he returned to Harvard determined to investigate drug-induced experiences and how they might benefit modern Western societies. He performed several studies using university students as subjects. However, these were deemed unethical by the authorities and eventually Leary and some of his closest colleagues were dismissed. However, his activities had attracted the attention of numerous influential people including the heirs to the Mellon family fortune who now bankrolled Leary so that he could set up a private research institution which he named the Castilia Foundation (in reference to Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”) in a mansion in Millbrook, NY where he continued to carry out experiments with hallucinogens, particularly LSD. Leary did a great deal to popularize the use of LSD for personal improvement and for use in radical politics, telling young people to “Turn on, tune in and drop out.” Interestingly, the ceremonies carried out at the Castilia Foundation were based on the Tibetan book of the dead, thereby reviving once again the mystical traditions of 19th century theosophy. Whatever value was associated with Leary’s LSD-fueled therapies, it is certainly true to say that the fascinating effects produced by drugs like LSD were taken very seriously by psychiatrists in the two decades between 1950 and 1970 when thousands of bona fide research articles were published on the potential use of these drugs in the treatment of numerous psychiatric disorders.
Psychedelic drugs also found their way to the West Coast courtesy of the CIA. American intelligence had been investigating the potential of psychedelic drugs as brainwashing agents to be used as weapons in the Cold War. One of the people on whom they tested LSD was Ken Kesey, then a creative writing student at Stanford, who went on to write the bestselling novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Like Leary, Kesey rapidly became convinced in the power of hallucinogenic drugs to change humanity for the better, and with his group of acolytes, the Merry Pranksters, began to distribute LSD widely throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Hallucinogenic drug use fueled the San Francisco counter culture “hippie” movement, resulting in an entirely new day-glo aesthetic which characterized the psychedelic hallucinatory experience. This was particularly manifest in poster art sometimes paying homage to Helena Blavatsky and William Blake, obviously strong influences on the movement.
The 1960s counter culture had many of the characteristics of a religion with shamans like Leary and Kesey. The enormous music festivals like Woodstock and Monterey were akin to religious gatherings fueled, as in ancient times, by the use of hallucinogens. This kind of behavior was anathema to the majority of middle-class Americans who became seriously frightened by what was going on, and President Nixon and his government passed the Controlled Substances Act that completely banned the possession and use of hallucinogens. Drugs like LSD (and cannabis) were categorized as Schedule 1 under the new law, which meant that they were deemed to be extremely dangerous and have no medical utility whatsoever. However, it should be noted that this move was entirely motivated by politics and not for bona fide medical reasons. In fact, it might be argued that drugs like LSD, which are not addictive, are useful in allowing humans access to a mystical psychological realm which could be extremely helpful to them. Nevertheless, with the passage of the Act, drugs like LSD completely disappeared from the arena of medical research.
The total eclipse of hallucinogens lasted for several decades. However, scientific interest in drugs that produced such interesting cognitive effects and had obvious psychotherapeutic potential was bound to resurface at some point. Over the last decade, there has been a clear revival of interest in the scientific underpinnings of hallucinogenic drug action, something that has been enabled by the use of powerful brain imaging techniques that were not available in the 1960s. It has been understood for many years that hallucinogens act as agonists at 5-HT2A receptors in the brain, but how this biochemical effect produced such profound changes in cognition was not known.
The detailed effects of drugs like LSD and psilocybin on the active, conscious human brain can be observed by using brain imaging techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). Not surprisingly, drugs like LSD produce widespread changes in the activity of the brain. One of the most interesting things that has been consistently observed are changes in what is known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain. The DMN is an interconnected group of brain structures that seems to be particularly active when the brain is “at rest,” that is thinking without any explicit goal in mind. In other words, it is the state one is in when one is not actively engaged in a particular task and one’s mind is more focused on oneself. Indeed, it is considered likely that such self-reflective mental activity may constitute important aspects of our sense of self—or what we might call our ego.
Drugs like psilocybin and LSD decrease activity of brain structures within the DMN, while simultaneously increasing functional connectivity between various other brain regions—something that has been described by workers in the field as an increase in “entropy” of the connectivity of the brain. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the areas where major changes in connectivity or rhythmic activity occur express high concentrations of 5HT2A receptors for which the hallucinogenic drugs act as agonists. Taken together, these results indicate that hallucinogens enhance global and between-module communication while diminishing the integrity of individual modules like the DMN, and that this effect is mediated by the brain’s key integration centers such as those that are rich in 5-HT2A receptors. How are such changes in the activity of the brain to be interpreted? We know that drugs like LSD produce extraordinarily profound changes in mood, the quality of thought and sensory perceptions, frequently leading to synesthesia, hallucinations and delusions, alterations in an individual’s experience of time and space, and an individual’s experience of self. In particular, hallucinogenic drugs cause a loosening of an individual’s sense of ego—a phenomenon sometimes called “ego dissolution” or “ego death.” The way that such changes in the perception of self are interpreted will depend on the individual and the setting. They could be associated with a sense of henosis, oneness and bliss or they might lead to more negative interpretations, including fear and paranoid ideation associated with experiences of the loss of one’s ego. Of great interest is the fact that the LSD-induced changes to the DMN observed in imaging studies are closely correlated with the subjects reported sense of ego dissolution.
Because we are now starting to develop a more sophisticated picture of how hallucinogenic drugs alter the activity of the brain, we might ask whether such changes also occur in individuals who report mystical thinking. It is obviously the case that in many respects, LSD intoxication and mysticism represent very different mental states. Nevertheless, because they seem to overlap significantly, it is a reasonable question to ask what the neural correlates might be that define these areas of commonality? Certainly, not all experiences induced by hallucinogens are of the mystical type. However, with the proper setting, preparation, support, and dose, mystical experiences are occasioned with a high frequency. We know this very well because hallucinogenic drugs have been used by shamans and witch doctors for producing these very effects for thousands of years. Questionnaires supplied to subjects undergoing imaging studies with hallucinogenic drugs report a high incidence of mystical thinking. One of the most famous “experiments” carried out by Timothy Leary and his colleagues back in the 1960s was the Marsh Chapel experiment in which individuals participating in a Good Friday religious service were given psilocybin or a placebo and asked to rate their spiritual experience. Participants who had received psilocybin overwhelmingly reported that their experience during the service had been more spiritually meaningful. This same experiment has now been repeated a number of times and the results are always the same.
It appears, therefore, that humans have evolved an extremely ancient and deeply encoded capacity for mystical thinking, something that one might speculate is related to a need for humans to make spiritual connections with other individuals, the biosphere and the universe in general. In modern times, mystical thinking is often something that relates to an individual’s struggle for meaning in the face of a world which is increasingly “explained” by rational, material and scientific approaches which, in many respects, have sought to displace the mystical side of human existence. Mystical thinking can be accessed by meditative procedures, ecstatic religious practices, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and is sometimes present as an aspect of psychopathology. Brain imaging studies have started to provide us with an understanding of the neural substrates that may underlie this mode of thinking. Because mystical thinking is quintessentially irrational, it is not bound by the rules that normally govern much of conventional thinking, allowing an escape into a state of mind that is more “outside the box” and in many respects representative of a sort of creativity that can lead to original artistic and philosophical insights. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that since the earliest times, humans have found great utility in the use of naturally occurring hallucinogenic substances that help them to access mystical states. The modern world has attempted to legislate these substances out of the mainstream of human existence. But this is surely shortsighted, as it seems that they help us to address a fundamental human need. It is only when humanity fully appreciates both the rational and irrational sides of the human psyche that it will attain its full potential. Current research on hallucinogens has suggested that the personal insights afforded by such drugs may be therapeutically useful in the context of some psychiatric disorders such as depression.
The Woodstock festival was really a “religious” gathering in many respects. The aims of the young people who gathered there were admirable. But over the last 50 years, the influence of the 60s counter cultural movement has waned. Now, as science and society are becoming interested in the potential of hallucinogenic drugs once again, perhaps it is time to re-examine some of the goals of the Woodstock generation as a guide to healing a planet that is quickly succumbing to malevolent forces that are spinning out of control.