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A psychedelic experience (or ‘trip’) is a temporary altered state of consciousness induced by the consumption of psychedelic drugs (such as mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT). For example, the term acid trip refers to psychedelic experiences brought on by the use of LSD.
The term “psychedelic” derives from Greek words essentially meaning “mind revealing”. Psychedelic experiences are interpreted in exploratory, learning, recreational, religious/mystical and therapeutic contexts.
A psychedelic experience is a temporary altered state of consciousness induced by the consumption of psychedelic drugs (the best known of which are LSD and psilocybin ‘magic’ mushrooms). The psychedelic altered state of consciousness is commonly characterised as a higher (elevated or transcendent) state relative to ordinary (sober) experience; for example, the psychologist Benny Shanon observed from ayahuasca trip reports: “the assessment, very common with ayahuasca, that what is seen and thought during the course of intoxication defines the real, whereas the world that is ordinarily perceived is actually an illusion.”
Similarly, psychologist Stanislav Grof described the LSD experience as: “complex revelatory insights into the nature of existence… typically accompanied by a sense of certainty that this knowledge is ultimately more relevant and “real” than the perceptions and beliefs we share in everyday life.” The philosopher Alan Watts likened psychedelic experiencing to the transformations of consciousness that are undertaken in Taoism and Zen, which he says is, “more like the correction of faulty perception or the curing of a disease… not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather an unlearning of wrong habits and opinions.”
The LSD experience was described by Alan Watts as, “revelations of the secret workings of the brain, of the associative and patterning processes, the ordering systems which carry out all our sensing and thinking.”
The term ‘psychedelic’ was coined in 1953 by the psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, during written correspondence with Aldous Huxley. ‘Psychedelic’ derives from two Ancient Greek words, ‘psyche’ meaning mind or soul and ‘delos’ meaning reveal or manifest. The psychedelic experience is said to reveal aspects of the mind that are normally hidden.
The term “trip” was first coined by US Army scientists during the 50s when they were experimenting with LSD.
Psychedelic tripping consists of a small number of distinctive phenomenological characteristics.
The major identifying characteristics include alterations of visual perception, psychotherapeutic breakthrough experiences leading to personal growth, experiences of religious epiphany/mystical transcendence, and ‘bad trips’ – negative/unpleasant panic-attack control-loss experiences (note: these four characteristics of psychedelic tripping are not mutually exclusive, there is a wide overlap between them). These four central characteristics of psychedelic experiencing are described in detail in the following sections:
Probably the most common, widely recognised psychedelic experiential phenomenon is the alteration in visual perception; this includes surfaces in the environment appearing to ripple and undulate; Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, described how during his bicycle ride home after his first deliberate LSD self-administration: “Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror”. Psychedelic visual alteration also includes spontaneous formation of complex flowing geometric visual patterning in the visual field. When the eyes are open, the visual alteration is overlaid onto the objects and spaces in the physical environment; when the eyes are closed the visual alteration is seen in the ‘inner world’ behind the eyelids. These visual effects increase in intensity with higher dosages, and also when the eyes are closed.
There is a distinctly gnosis-like quality to psychedelic experiencing; it is a learning experience that elevates consciousness and makes a profound contribution to personal development. For this reason, the plant sources of some psychedelic drugs such as ayahuasca and mescaline-containing cacti are sometimes referred to as “plant teachers”.
Similarly, in a follow-up to the psilocybin and mysticism study at Johns Hopkins, researchers observed that psilocybin: “occasions personally and spiritually significant mystical experiences that predict long-term changes in behaviors, attitudes and values”.
Psychedelic experience includes the full range of mystical or religious experiential phenomena. Two scientific studies have concluded that psilocybin (a typical psychedelic compound that occurs naturally in psilocybin mushrooms) reliably triggers mystical-type experiences. The more recent study at Johns Hopkins University identified mystical experiences by means of several questionnaires designed to categorise altered state ‘non-ordinary’ experiences, including one questionnaire called ‘the mysticism scale’.
Several modern religions exist today that base their religious activities and beliefs around psychedelic experiencing, such as Santo Daime and the Native American Church. In this context, the psychedelic experience is interpreted as a way of communicating with the realm of spirits or ancestors.
A “bad trip” (“drug-induced temporary psychosis” or “psychedelic crisis”) is a disturbing, unpleasant, potentially dangerous, and possibly traumatizing psychedelic experience. Bad trips are more common at high doses, where the psychedelic effect is more intense.
The manifestations can range from feelings of mild anxiety and alienation to profoundly disturbing states of unrelieved terror, ultimate entrapment, sheer insanity or cosmic annihilation. This is why a person who plans on taking a psychedelic should be accompanied by a trip sitter.
Bad trips can be exacerbated by the inexperience or irresponsibility of the user or the lack of proper preparation and environment for the trip. At the extreme, the occurrence of bad trips without proper preparation can result in a tripper committing self-harm or harming others, suicide attempts and contact with law enforcement.
Psychedelic specialists in the psychotherapeutic community do not necessarily consider unpleasant experiences as unhealthy or undesirable, focusing instead on their potential for psychological healing, to lead to breakthrough and resolution of unresolved psychic issues.
Aldous Huxley’s concept of the cognitive reducing valve
In his book The Doors of Perception, author and psychonaut Aldous Huxley presents the idea of the mental reducing valve in order to explain the significance of the psychedelic experience. According to Huxley, the central nervous system‘s main function is to shut out the majority of what we perceive; the brain filters those perceptions which are useful for survival. Society aids in this filtering by creating a symbolic system which structures our reality and which reduces our awareness.
Psychedelic experiencing has the effect of reducing the strength of the mind’s reducing valve, which allows for a broader spectrum of one’s overall experience to enter into conscious experience. A person undergoing a psychedelic trip temporarily possesses a higher level of conscious awareness.
Psychedelic therapy refers to therapeutic practices involving the use of psychedelic drugs to facilitate beneficial emotional processing and exploration of the psyche. In contrast to conventional psychiatric medication which is taken by the patient regularly or as-needed, in psychedelic therapy, patients remain in an extended psychotherapy session during the acute activity of the drug and spend the night at the facility. In the sessions with the drug, therapists are nondirective and support the patient in exploring their inner experience. Patients participate in psychotherapy before the drug psychotherapy sessions to prepare them and after the drug psychotherapy to help them integrate their experiences with the drug.
An early practitioner of psychedelic drug based psychiatry was Humphrey Osmond, a British psychiatrist who was responsible for coining the word ‘psychedelic’ in the first place. Osmond claimed that his own personal use of LSD had helped him to understand the inner mental states of his schizophrenic patients.
Another important practitioner in this field is Stanislav Grof, who pioneered the use of LSD in psychotherapy. Grof characterised psychedelic experiencing as “non-specific amplification of unconscious mental processes”, and he analysed the phenomenology of the LSD experience (particularly the experience of psychospiritual death and rebirth) in terms of Otto Rank‘s theory of the unresolved memory of the primal birth trauma.
- Altered state of consciousness
- Cannabis and time perception
- Eight-circuit model of consciousness
- Psychedelic drug
- Set and setting
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- Bennett, Stanislav Grof with Hal Zina (2006). The holotropic mind : the three levels of human consciousness and how they shape our lives (1st paperback ed., [Nachdr.] ed.). San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco. p. 38. ISBN 9780062506597.
- Watts, Alan W. (2013). The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Second ed.). p. 15. ISBN 9781608682041.
- Watts, Alan W. (2013). The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (Second ed.). p. 44. ISBN 9781608682041.
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- MacLean, Katherine A.; Johnson, Matthew W.; Griffiths, Roland R. (2011). “Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness” (PDF). Journal of Psychopharmacology. 25 (11): 1453–1461. doi:10.1177/0269881111420188. PMC 3537171. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 October 2013.
- Rätsch, Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian (2001). Plants of the gods : their sacred, healing, and hallucinogenic powers (Rev. and expanded ed.). Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press. ISBN 0892819790.
- Stanislav Grof, LSD Psychotherapy; passim
- Huxley, Aldous (1954) The Doors of Perception. Reissue published by HarperCollins: 2004. p. 22-25 ISBN 0-06-059518-3
- “A Manual for MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” (PDF). Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. 4 January 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 September 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
- Sessa, Ben (2015). Psychedelic Drug Treatments. USA: Mercury Learning & Information. p. 60. ISBN 1936420449.
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- Grof, Stanislav (2008). LSD psychotherapy (4th ed.). [Ben Lomond, Calif.?]: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. ISBN 0979862205.
- Grof, Stanislav (1976). Realms of the human unconscious : observations from LSD research. New York: Dutton. p. 98. ISBN 0-525-47438-2.
- Grinspoon, Lester, & Bakalar, James. B. (Eds.). Psychedelic Reflections. (1983). New York: Human Sciences Press. p. 13-14 ISBN 0-89885-129-7