The Good Friday service in Easter 1962 was a memorable experience for ten seminarians at the Andover Newton Theological School. Although they could remember hardly anything of the sermon delivered by Pastor Howard Thurman, they could recall a sea of colours, voices from the Beyond, and the feeling that they were melting into the surrounding world. In a word, the students were high.
At the beginning of the 1960s, some daring scientists turned their attention to studying mind-altering substances. This was the period when it was all part and parcel of a lecture on mysticism to ingest magic mushrooms to gain practical insight into the subject, and when a doctoral thesis could entail giving students drugs and observing their behaviour. This is exactly what Walter Pahnke did: this young theologian and doctor from Harvard University was keen to discover whether psychedelic drugs could induce the kind of mystical sensations that only very few people otherwise experience, for example when in a state of religious trance. Users of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline had long claimed that this was the case.
Pahnke turned to Timothy Leary, who a short time before had begun conducting drug experiments at Harvard, and who later became a leading figure in the 1960s counterculture. He proposed an experiment to Leary: test subjects would attend a church service, but half of them would be given mind-expanding drugs in advance. Afterwards, all participants would be required to fill in a questionnaire and be interviewed. Comparing the findings with descriptions of mystical experiences from the realm of religion would demonstrate whether there was a qualitative difference between them.
Leary was half shocked and half amused by the idea. As he later wrote in his autobiography: ‘If he had proposed giving aphrodisiacs to twenty virgins to produce a mass orgasm, it wouldn't have sounded further out’. He explained to Pahnke that a psychedelic trip was an intensely personal experience and that a person would have to have experienced several himself before he could even contemplate devising such an experiment. However, Pahnke was adamant that he would have to wait until his thesis had been accepted before he indulged. He didn’t want anyone accusing him of partiality: the experiment would only have a chance of succeeding if he hadn’t taken any drugs himself beforehand.
Leary was impressed by Pahnke’s stubbornness and so agreed to set up a small test at his house with a couple of theological students. In his autobiography, he reported that each of the subjects experienced “visions as dramatic as Moses or Mohammed” and that “it was strong Old Testament stuff”. One of them was afraid he was going to die, while another spent the trip ‘copulating the carpet’. None of this fazed Leary: “So there were crises of conscience and identity – but it was all healthy and yeasty”.
After Pahnke and Leary had established an exact procedure, the main experiment could then take place. On the morning of Good Friday, two hours before the service, 20 students met in the crypt of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. They were encouraged “not try to fight the effects of the drug even if the experience became very unusual or frightening”.
In groups of four, they were then asked to wait in separate rooms to be given the capsules containing psilocybin – magic mushroom in powdered form, a drug that was also used by certain indigenous peoples during their sacred rites. Each group had two minders. The night before, someone not involved in the experiment had packed the capsules – for each group, two containing the drug and two placebos. Pahnke was concerned to conduct his experiment along the most stringent lines governing a clinical drug trial – namely double-blind. In other words, to ensure that the data that emerged could be evaluated totally impartially, neither the evaluators nor the subjects would know who had actually taken the magic mushrooms. He even employed a further smokescreen: the placebo capsules didn’t contain the customary ineffective powder but 200 milligrams of niacin, a vitamin that induces hot flushes and that would thereby simulate for the participants the effect of having taken the psilocybin. At least at the very outset, for it soon became apparent quite how pointless it was to try and conduct an experiment with psychedelic drugs double-blind. Although the effect of the niacin was to produce some initial confusion, it pretty soon became clear who was in which group. In other words, the list given to the evaluator to show who had taken the placebo and who was on the real drug was rendered totally redundant.
The five groups were then taken to attend the service in the small crypt chapel, where Father Thurman’s voice boomed out through a loudspeaker. He was delivering his regular Good Friday sermon in the main chapel one floor above. Ten of the 20 test subjects sat attentively on their pews. Of the other 10, some wandered about the chapel muttering to themselves, one lay on the floor while another sprawled across a pew, and another sat down at the organ and played dissonant chords. Five of the ten minders also started behaving oddly. Overruling Pahnke’s misgivings, Leary had also insisted that they be given the drug. He justified his decision by claiming, “We are all in it together. Shared ignorance. Shared hopes. Shared risks”.
The service lasted two and a half hours. When it had ended, the students were interviewed for the first time. At 5 o’clock, Leary invited everyone to come and eat with him, but ‘the trippers were still too high to do much except shake their heads, saying “Wow!”’, as he later recalled.
In the days following the experiment, and again six months later, the subjects were quizzed about what they had gone through. Pahnke wanted to use his questionnaire to find out how intense a mystical experience they had had. This consisted of questions relating to nine separate realms of experience, including the sensation of being in harmony with oneself, the impression that time and space were being transcended, along with questions relating to people’s moods, their sense that things were ineffable and their feelings of transience. The results were unequivocal: eight of the 10 students who had eaten the magic mushroom experienced at least seven of the impressions and feelings customarily associated with a mystical experience. By contrast, no-one from the control group reached this kind of score. In every category, they lagged far behind the experimental group.
The difference also manifested itself clearly during the interviews. The students on psilocybin claimed that the trip had also had a positive knock-on effect on their daily lives: they maintained that it had raised their consciousness, caused them to reflect more deeply on their attitude to life and made them more socially aware. Pahnke reckoned that these positive effects could be attributed to the fact that the church service had given the participants a familiar framework in which to put their drug experience.
So, it seemed that ingesting 30 milligrams of white powder could bring about a state of consciousness identical to that experienced by Christians, Buddhists or Hindus after self-castigation, withdrawal from the world to live as a hermit and long years of meditation. This was indeed a bold claim: “To some theologians, the awareness that it appears possible to experience mystical consciousness [samadhi in Advaitan Hinduism, satori in Zen Buddhism, the beatific vision in Christianity] with the help of a drug on a free Saturday afternoon at first appears ironic and even profane,” Pahnke noted. However, for him this possibility only indicated “the poor methods that have been used by men to gain such experience”.
Pahnke was well aware that psychedelic drugs were a highly emotive issue in the church. The experiment not only raised the questions of whether mystical experiences were solely based on neurological processes and whether divine inspiration was really just physical brain chemistry. It also cast doubt on the principle that a mystical experience had to be earned through asceticism. Even so, Pahnke firmly believed that research into these new states of consciousness had a great future. He dreamt of an institute where psychologists, psychiatrists and theologians would be able to conduct experiments to fathom the mysteries of mysticism. But things didn’t quite pan out that way: although Pahnke’s doctoral thesis was accepted, funding for further experiments dried up. Psychedelic drugs were banned, since the public health authorities regarded them as dangerous. Leary was fired. As for Pahnke, he was killed in a diving accident in 1971.
Twenty-five years after the experiment, the psychologist Rick Doblin attempted to find the surviving participants. In four years’ of detective work, he succeeded in tracking down 19 of the 20 students. Sixteen of them agreed to be interviewed and filled in the same questionnaire as in the original experiment. The results were astonishingly consistent: those in the experimental group and the control group gave much the same answers as they had done a quarter of a century before. The test subjects from the experimental group described the Good Friday service of 1962 as one of the high points in their spiritual lives. They all claimed that the experiment had had a positive influence on them. Some attributed their later socially aware outlook to it, while others said it had helped them come to a postive accommodation with their fear of death.
Nevertheless, most of the former participants also recalled that the experiment also had its negative aspects. There were moments when they thought they were going mad or dying. Pahnke only treated this aspect in passing in his thesis. In particular he hushed up the fact that one subject had to be injected with an antidote when the situation got out of hand: seized with an urge to put Pastor Thurman’s call to spread the word of Christ into action straight away, one student left the chapel and went out onto the street, from where he had to be fetched back.
Despite this, Doblin’s assessment of the experiment is largely positive. Though the men from the experimental group weren’t in favour of a complete liberalization of drugs, they did take the view that drugtaking in the right context could be a thoroughly enriching experience.
Just one member of the control group claimed that the experiment had benefited him greatly. Not that it was the church service as such that had such a positive effect on him, but rather the decision he made during it to try psychedelic drugs himself at the next available opportunity.
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