On Good Friday, 1962, before services commenced in Boston University's
Marsh Chapel, Walter Pahnke administered small capsules to twenty
Protestant divinity students. Thus began the most scientific experiment
in the literature designed to investigate the potential of psychedelic
drugs to facilitate mystical experience (Pahnke, 1963, 1966, 1967,
1970; Pahnke & Richards, 1969a, 1969b, 1969c). Half the capsules
contained psilocybin (30mg), an extract of psychoactive mushrooms,
and the other half contained a placebo. According to Pahnke, the
experiment determined that "the persons who received psilocybin
experienced to a greater extent than did the controls the phenomena
described by our typology of mysticism" (Pahnke, 1963, p.
This paper is a brief methodological critique and long-term follow-up study to the "Good Friday Experiment." Pahnke, who was both a physician and a minister, conducted the experiment in 1962 for his Ph.D. in Religion and Society at Harvard University, with Timothy Leary as his principal academic advisor (Leary, 1962, 1967, 1968). Describing the experiment, Walter Houston Clark, 1961 recipient of the American Psychological Association's William James Memorial Award for contributions to the psychology of religion, writes, "There are no experiments known to me in the history of the scientific study of religion better designed or clearer in their conclusions than this one" (Clark, 1969, p. 77).
Since a classic means of evaluating mystical experiences is by their fruits, follow-up data is of fundamental importance in evaluating the original experiment. A six-month follow-up was part of the original experiment and a longer term follow-up would probably have been conducted by Pahnke himself had it not been for his death in 1971. For over twenty-five years it has not been legally possible to replicate or revise this experiment. Hence, this long-term follow-up study, conducted by the author, is offered as a way to advance scientific knowledge in the area of psychedelics and experimental mysticism. Lukoff, Zanger and Lu's review (1990) of psychoactive substances and transpersonal states offers a recent overview of this topic.
Though all raw data from the original experiment is lost, including the uncoded list of participants, extensive research over a period of four years and the enthusiastic cooperation of most of the original subjects have resulted in the identification and location of nineteen out of the original twenty subjects. From November, 1986 to October, 1989, this author tape recorded personal interviews with sixteen of the original subjects meeting fifteen in their home cities throughout the United States and interviewing one subject (from the control group) over the telephone. In addition to the interviews, all sixteen subjects participating in the long-term follow-up, nine from the control and seven from the experimental group, were re-administered the six-month 100-item follow-up questionnaire used in the original experiment.
Of the remaining three subjects from the experimental group, one is deceased. The identity of another is unknown. One declined to participate citing concerns about privacy. One subject, from the control group, declined to be interviewed or to fill out the questionnaire because he interpreted Pahnke's pledge of confidentiality to mean that the subjects should not talk about the experiment to anyone. This author's discussion of the meaning of confidentiality and mention of the explicit support for the long-term follow-up by Pahnke's wife failed to enlist his participation.
Informal discussions were also conducted with seven out of the ten of Pahnke's original research assistants for purposes of gathering background information about the experiment. At the time of the experiment, these people were professors or students of religion, psychology and philosophy at universities, colleges and seminaries in the Boston area.
None of the fine points of the mystical experience were given to us. We were not told to read any books such as Stace's book on mysticism or Jacob Boheme's books, nothing like that. They did not bias us in any way towards that, not at all.
After about a half hour I got this burning sensation. It was more like indigestion than a burning sensation. And I said to T.B., "Do you feel anything?" And he said, "No, not yet." We kept asking, "Do you feel anything?" I said, "You know, I've got this burning sensation, and it's kind of uncomfortable." And T.B. said, "My God, I don't have it, you got the psilocybin, I don't have it." I thought, "Jeez, at least I was lucky in this trial. I'm sorry T.B. didn't get it, but I'm gonna' find out." I figured, with my luck, I'd probably get the sugar pill, or whatever it is. And I said to Y.M., "Do you feel anything?" No, he didn't feel anything. So I sat there, and I remember sitting there, and I thought, "Well, Leary told me to chart my course so I'm gonna' concentrate on that." And I kept concentrating and sitting there and all I did was get more indigestion and uncomfortable.
Nothing much more happened and within another 40 minutes, 45 minutes, everybody was really quiet and sitting there. Y.M. was sitting there and looking ahead, and all of the sudden T.B. says to me, "Those lights are unbelievable." And I said, "What lights?" He says, "Look at the candles." He says, "Can you believe that?" And I looked at the candles, and I thought, they look like candles." He says, "Can't you see something strange about them?" So I remember squinting and looking. I couldn't see anything strange. And he says, "You know it's just spectacular." And I looked at Y.M. and he was sitting there saying, "Yeah." And I thought, "They got it, I didn't."
We have witnessed the ascendancy of the randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial (RCCT), to the point where many in positions of authority now believe that data obtained via this technique should constitute the only basis for registering a drug or indeed for coming to any conclusions about its efficacy at any time in the drug's career. My thesis is that this viewpoint is untenable, needlessly rigid, unrealistic, and at times unethical.... Modern trial techniques [were not] necessary to recognize the therapeutic potential of chloral hydrate, the barbiturates, ether, nitrous oxide, chloroform, curare, aspirin, quinine, insulin, thyroid, epinephrine, local anesthetics, belladonna, antacids, sulfonamides, and penicillin, to give a partial list... (Lasagna, 1985, p. 48).
In certain participant-observer situations (e.g. psychotherapy, education, change induction, action research) the purpose might be to influence the system under investigation as much as possible, but still accounting for (though now exploiting) the variance within the system attributable to the several significant and relevant aspects of the investigator's participant observation.... From this perspective, the quixotic attempt to eliminate the effects of participant-observation in the name of a misplaced pseudo-objectivity is fruitless, not so much because it is impossible but because it is unproductive.... From our point of view... the question becomes not how to eliminate bias (unaccounted-for influence) of participant observation, but how optimally to account for and exploit the effects of the participant observation transaction in terms of the purposes of the research (Tooley & Pratt, 1964, p. 254-56).
To take an individual case, there was one control subject who scored fairly high on sacredness and sense of peace and that he himself, in his written account, said "It was a very meaningful experience, but in the past I've certainly had one that was much more so" (Pahnke, 1966, p. 648).
|1.Unity A. Internal||60||(77)||5||(5)|
|2. Transcendence of Time and Space||78||(73)||7||(9)|
|3. Deeply Felt Positive Mood||54||(56)||23||(21)|
|5. Objectivity and Reality||71||(82)||18||(24)|
|7. Alleged Ineffability||77||(71)||15||(3)|
|Average for the Categories||60.8||(66.8)||11.8||(12.2)|
|9. Persisting Positive Changes in|
Attitude and Behavior
|10. Persisting Negative Changes in|
Attitude and Behavior
Comparisons can reliably be made between the control group's six-month and long-term scores because nine out of the original ten control group subjects participated in the long-term follow-up and the variance in scores between control subjects was small. The absence of completed long-term questionnaires from three of the ten original subjects from the psilocybin group makes comparing their six-month and long-term scores more difficult. The long-term follow-up interviews produced specific information suggesting that one of the three missing psilocybin subjects had scores significantly lower than average. No information was generated suggesting that the other two missing subjects had scores significantly different than average. The average scores for the long-term follow-up may thus overstate somewhat the scores from the entire psilocybin group.
The average scores for the eight categories of the mystical experience and the scores for persisting positive and negative changes in attitude and behavior have changed remarkably little for either the controls or the experimentals despite the passage of between twenty-four and twenty-seven years between the two tests. The questionnaire seems to be reliable and indicates that time has not substantially altered the opinions of the subjects about their experiences. In the long-term follow-up even more than in the six-month follow-up, the experimental group has higher scores than the control group in every category. For the long-term follow-up, these differences are significant at p<.05 in every category.
For the experimental group, the average score for the mystical categories at the six-month follow-up was 60.8 percent. They scored 66.8 percent at the long-term follow-up. In the six-month follow-up, the experimental group scored above 34 percent in all categories while in the long-term follow-up they scored above 48 percent in all categories. The experimental group scored the highest in those categories that typify a different state of consciousness such as transcendence of time and space, alleged ineffability and transiency.
For the control group, the average score for the eight categories of mystical experience at the six-month follow-up was 11.8 percent. They scored 12.2 percent at the long-term follow-up. The highest score of the control group at either time was 29 percent, in the sacredness category. The control group scored the highest in the categories of experience that religious services are most likely to induce, namely sense of sacredness, deeply felt positive mood and sense of objectivity and reality.
For the psilocybin group, the long-term follow-up yielded moderately increased scores in the categories of internal and external unity, sacredness, objectivity and reality, and paradoxicality, while all other categories remained virtually the same as the six-month data. Several decades seem to have strengthened the experimental groups' characterization of their original Good Friday experience as having had genuinely mystical elements. For the controls, the only score that changed substantially was that of alleged ineffability, which decreased.
A relatively high degree of persisting positive changes were reported by the experimental group while virtually no persisting positive changes were reported by the control group. In the open-ended portion of the long-term follow-up questionnaire, experimental subjects wrote that the experience helped them to resolve career decisions, recognize the arbitrariness of ego boundaries, increase their depth of faith, increase their appreciation of eternal life, deepen their sense of the meaning of Christ, and heighten their sense of joy and beauty. No positive persisting changes were reported by the control group in the open-ended section of the follow-up questionnaire.
There was a very low incidence of persisting negative changes in attitudes or behavior in either group at either the six-month follow-up or the long-term follow-up. However, the one psilocybin subject reported to have had the most difficult time during the experiment was the one who declined this author's request to be interviewed in person or fill out a questionnaire, placing in question the generalizability of this finding for the long-term.
Both the six-month and long-term follow-up questionnaire results support Pahnke's hypothesis that psilocybin, when taken in a religious setting by people who are religiously inclined, can facilitate experiences of varying degrees of depth that either are identical with, or indistinguishable from, those reported in the cross-cultural mystical literature. In addition, both the six-month and the long-term follow-up questionnaire results support Pahnke's hypothesis that the subjects who received psilocybin, more so than the controls, experienced substantial positive persisting effects in attitude and behavior.
I can think of no experiences [like the Good Friday experience] quite of that magnitude. That was the last of the great four in my life. The dream state... I had no control over when it was coming. It was when I [was about nine and] had scarlet fever and rheumatic fever, apparently at either similar or at the same times. And they thought that I was going to die. And I saw a light coming out of the sky, this is in the dream, and it came toward me and it was like the figure of Christ and I said, "No, let me live and I'll serve you." And I'm alive and I've served. The prayer state when I was in seventh grade was very similar in the way it happened to me. I intentionally went for an experience with God. In seventh grade. And I also went for an experience with God at the Good Friday experience. And those were similar. The West Point experience was different. In that yes, it was prayers, it was on my knees, it was there, but the face of Christ was. .. it happened more to me than me participating in it. It was more like a saving experience kind of thing. So I've had that and can talk about "a salvation experience," a born again experience, it was that kind of dedication.
It left me with a completely unquestioned certainty that there is an environment bigger than the one I'm conscious of. I have my own interpretation of what that is, but it went from a theoretical proposition to an experiential one. In one sense it didn't change anything, I didn't discover something I hadn't dreamed of, but what I had thought on the basis of reading and teaching was there. I knew it. Somehow it was much more real to me.... I expect things from meditation and prayer and so forth that I might have been a bit more skeptical about before.... I have gotten help with problems, and at times I think direction and guidance in problem solving. Somehow my life has been different knowing that there is something out there.... What I saw wasn't anything entirely surprising and yet there was a powerful impact from having seen it.
When you get a clear vision of what [death] is and have sort of been there, and have left the self, left the body, you know, self leaving the body, or soul leaving the body, or whatever you want to call it, you would also know that marching in the Civil Rights Movement or against the Vietnam War in Washington [is less fearful].... In a sense [it takes away the fear of dying]... because you've already been there. You know what it's about. When people approaching death have an out-of-body experience... [you] say, "I know what you're talking about. I've been there. Been there and come back. And it's not terrifying, it doesn't hurt...."
I got very involved with civil rights after that [his psychedelic experience] and spent some time in the South. I remember this unity business, I thought there was some link there.... There could have been. People certainly don't write about it. They write about it the opposite way, that drugs are an escape from social obligations. That is the popular view....
Something extraordinary had taken place which had never taken place before. All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity, and all of a sudden I had lost touch with my mind. I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of Creation... huge, as the mystics say.... I did experience that kind of classic kind of blending.... Sometimes you would look up and see the light on the altar and it would just be a blinding sort of light and radiations The main thing about it was a sense of timelessness.
The meditation was going on all during this time, and he [Rev. Howard Thurman] would say things about Jesus and you would have this overwhelming feeling of Jesus.... It was like you totally penetrated what was being said and it penetrated you.... Death looked different. It became in focus.... I got the impression, the sensation... that what people are essentially in their essence that somehow they would continue to live. They may die in one sense, the physical sense, but their being in heaven would survive....
We took such an infinitesimal amount of psilocybin, and yet it connected me to infinity.
I was on the floor underneath the chapel pew and he [a group leader] was looking after me and sort of aware of, you know, "L.J. is down there, is everything all right?" I was hearing my uncle who had died [several months before], the one who was a minister, saying, "I want you to die, I want you to die, I want you to die" I could hear his voice saying. The more that I let go and sort of died, the more I felt this eternal life, saying to myself under my breath perhaps, "it has always been this way, it has always been this way.... O, isn't it wonderful, there's nothing to fear, this is what it means to die, or to taste of eternal life...." And the more I died the more I appropriated this sense of eternal life.... While the service went on I was caught up in this experience of eternal life and appreciating what the peyote Indians or the sacred mushroom Indians experienced with their imbibing of the drug. Just in that one session I think I gained experience I didn't have before and probably could never have gotten from a hundred hours of reading or a thousand hours of reading.
I would have to say as far as I'm concerned it was a positive, mystical experience... confirmed by experiences both before and after.
Shortly after receiving the capsule, all of a sudden I just wanted to laugh. I began to go into a very strong paranoid experience. And I found it to be scary. The chapel was dark and I hated it in there, just absolutely hated it in there. And I got up and left. I walked down the corridor and there was a guard, a person stationed at the door so individuals wouldn't go out, and he says, "Don't go outside," and I said, "Oh no, I won't. I'll just look outdoors." And I went to the door and out I went. They sent [a group leader] out after me. We [L.R. and the group leader] went back into the building and again, I hated to be in that building and being confined because there were bars on the window and I felt literally like I was in prison. One of the things that was probably happening to me was a reluctance to just flow. I tried to resist that and as soon as resistance sets in there's likely to be conflict and there's likely, I think, for there to be anxiety.
The inner awareness and feelings I had during the drug experience were the dropping away of the external world and those relationships and then the sudden sense of singleness, oneness. And the rest of normal waking consciousness is really... illusion. It's not real and somehow that inner core experience of oneness is more real and more authentic than normal consciousness.... I was also experiencing some of those same kind of states that produced anxiety, and I wanted to try to get at the bottom of it.
I personally feel that the experience itself was, and I know his [Pahnke's] research came to the conclusion, that the effect of the chemicals like that is very similar, parallel to, perhaps the same as a classical mystical experience....
I closed my eyes and the visuals were back, the color patterns were back, and it was as if I was in an ocean of bands, streams of color, streaming past me. The colors were brilliant and I could swim down any one of those colors. Then that swirl dissolved itself into a radial pattern, a center margin radial pattern with the colors going out from the center. I was at the center and I could swim out any one of those colors and it would be a whole different life's experience. I could swim out any one of them that I wanted. I mean I could swim metaphorically. There wasn't the sense that I could actually paddle. I could choose any one I wanted, but I had to choose one.
I couldn't decide which one to go out, and eventually it connects to the decision I was in the midst of making about career choices ... when I couldn't decide, I died. Very existential... for a brief moment there, I was physically dying. My insides were literally being scooped out, and it was very painful.... I said to myself... that nobody should have to go through this... it was excruciating to die like that. Very painful. And I died....
After the psilocybin experience, I never consciously made the choice as to what I was going to do career-wise, but the choice was made. It was made while I was on the psilocybin. But it never had to be consciously, intentionally, "Ah, let's see, what I am going to do is...." It was made, and I was confident of it, it was going to be. And I did it afterwards....
I feel almost whatever I say about it... is a little bit artificial in terms of describing. What it is is something deeper and probably also more obvious and I think I endeavor to put it into some kind of category which may obscure the point in some way. I remember feeling at the time that I was very unusually incapable of describing it. Words are a familiar environment for me and I usually can think of them, but I didn't find any for this. And I haven't yet.
I closed my eyes, either thinking of meditating or maybe I was drowsy or something. I closed my eyes and it seemed to be darker than usual. And then there was a sudden bolt of light which I think was entirely internal and a feeling almost like a shock or something and that was only for an instant. It wasn't violent but it was a definite tingling like taking hold of a wire or something.
I closed my eyes and... thought that this would be a fine time for [meditating on the Passion].... So I did think about the procession to the cross. And with my eyes closed I had an unusually vivid scene of the procession going by. A scene quite apart from any imagining or anything on my part. A self-actualizing thingkind of like watching a movie or something, it was apart from me but very vivid.
I had a definite sense of being an infant or being born, or something like that. I had a sense of death, too, but I think actually the sense of death came after the sense of birth.... I had my hands on my legs and there wasn't any flesh, there were bare bones, resting on my bones. That part wasn't frightening, I was just kind of amazed.... I think I must have gone along through the life of Christ identifying in a very total sort of wayreliving the life in some way until finally dying and going into the tomb.
I really am glad I took it. And glad that I was a subject. I don't think it would be a particularly memorable experience if I just had listened to the service. I've heard some good services and I imagine this was as moving as most. But I think it would be in that category instead of a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing....
I've remained convinced that my ability to perceive things was artificially changed, but the perceptions I had were real as anything else.
I was kneeling there praying and beginning to feel like I was experiencing the kind of prayer life that I experienced back when I was in the seventh grade, eleven or twelve years old. It was the kind of experiences that you knew that something great was happening. I started to go to the root of all being. And discovered that... you never quite get there. That was my discovery during that time... it's a philosophy and a theology that I hold yet today. You can approach the fullness of all being in either prayer, or in the psilocybin experience. You can reach out, but you can't dive down... and hit that root.
The discovery within that experience is that you could approach God by two different ways. You either get to the root, the ground of all being, or the fullness of all being. And in getting to the root, you'll strive, you'll come closer and closer, but it's always half, and you'll think another half step, another half step, and you'll never quite get there. The fullness, to approach the fullness of God is the only way to approach God.
It was a feeling of being... lifted out of your present state. I just stopped worrying about time and all that kind of stuff ... there was one universal man, personhood, whatever you want to call it... a lot of connectedness with everybody and every thing. I don't think Christ or other religious images that I can remember came into it. That's the only reason I didn't think it was religious. I don't remember any religious images....
I was convinced after the experiment that I had had quite an experience but that it was really into my psychological depths, and it was not a religious experience.... It was really the sense that I was discovering the depths of my own self. It did not have a sacredness kind of element to it.... l didn't think I had experienced a God that was particularly outside of me. What I experienced was a God that was inside of me. And I think that... made me say, I don't think this is religious, I think this is psychological. But that was because of the way I was defining being... the way I thought God was being defined by other people at that point.
I laid on the front pew and watched myselfit seemed like eternitypour through my navel and totally become nothing. And I felt that this would never stop. It seemed like an eternity of being in heaven and everything. One of the most beautiful experiences in my entire life.
It sure kicks the hell out of one being rigid with what could go on and what kind of experiences you could have. To take one of these drugs says a lot more can happen than what's been happening in your total experience. And I think that's good, and that's why I would want my kids to take it.
It was rather removed from the religious context. Certainly the environment we were in had no particular religious symbols. I recall they really stressed [the need to] be absolutely open and just relax and flow with the experience whatever comes. So, there was no context really to suggest a particular experience like there might have been with the Good Friday experiment. We didn't talk about mysticism, as I recall, or religious symbols....
At one point I kind of felt like, "Well, maybe this is what it is like to be crazy." I never really panicked but I was acutely aware of anxiety.... As time evolved I just had this incredible sense of joy and humor, too. I was laughing, real ecstasy.... The thing that struck me was how anybody could worry or not trust, that just struck me as an absurdity. It was very exciting.
There was an energy, it was almost a sexual thing, an intensity and a joy. The visual things that I experienced and the music, I think were aligned with the sense of unity, everything was unified. We were all part of the same thing. You didn't sense a difference between the music or the physical objects....
I think that you can certainly have a religious experience without the religious symbols. Certainly the religious symbols can lead you to a mystical experience. Unfortunately, they can also be divisive. The sectarianism can flow from the different symbols and justify the differences rather than the commonality. I think the mystic experience as I understand it comes down more on the commons.
I tend to look back on it as an historical curiosity, with intellectual interest to me, but you know, frankly not much else at this point.... The only change that I can think of that it brought about in my life was a conviction that I never wanted to go on a drug trip of any type ever. And I never have, except for booze. The sights I saw [during the experiment] were very disturbing to me, and I didn't see myself wanting to be in that kind of position. It appeared to be hopelessly out of control and life threatening in several instances.
The other thing I found unique that wasn't talked at all about in what I read, at least in the thesis, was that it was all on the positive up side. I don't know whether other people have said this but I had a down side.... It was a roller coaster.... I mean I had a very strong positive sense of the whole... one with humanity kind of positive glowing, unity kind of feeling and then I went down to the bottom where I was really just... guilt ... that's all I can say. It was a very, very profound sense of guilt.
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