The Long, Strange Relationship Between Psychedelics and Telepathy
Phenomenology and Existentialism
In February of 1971, approximately 2,000 attendees at six Grateful Dead concerts at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York saw this message projected onto a large screen at 11:30 PM: “YOU ARE ABOUT TO PARTICIPATE IN AN ESP EXPERIMENT.”
It was a test to see if people could use extra-sensory perception, or ESP, to telepathically transmit randomly chosen images to two “psychic sensitive” people, Malcolm Bessent and Felicia Parise, who were sleeping 45 miles away. Bessent was at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory in Brooklyn, while Parise slept in her apartment.
Art prints, selected at random, were projected at the Dead show, like The Castle of the Pyrenees and Philosophy in the Boudoir by René Magritte, or a visual representation of spinal chakras. Bessent and Parise described their dreams to two evaluators, an art therapy student and a divinity student, who then judged them based on their similarities to the images shown at the concert.
The Grateful Dead were chosen because the members of the band agreed to facilitate such an experiment, but also because those who conducted the study had determined that the audience would be especially primed for telepathic abilities, in part because of the state of mind they assumed the audience would be in.
In a paper summarizing the project, the authors wrote, “It was apparent to observers at the concert that the majority of the people in the audience were in states of consciousness that had been dramatically altered…these altered states of consciousness were brought about by the music, by the ingestion of psychedelic drugs before the concerts started, and by contact with other members of the audience.”
This is just one example of many of the historical overlap between psychical and paranormal research, and psychedelics. Some of the most storied names from the early psychedelic research period were also investigating ESP, telepathy, and precognition. Their interest in psychedelics wasn’t tangential, but directly related, as was the case in the Grateful Dead experiment. Many thought that psychedelics could induce these experiences, or bring about states where they were more likely to occur. Of course, the CIA’s MK-Ultra program, from 1953 to 1964, also pursued mind-controlling abilities of psychedelics; a psychiatrist, Donald Ewen Cameron, used LSD to do “psychic driving” experiments on people at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute.
Today, people continue to regularly report having anomalous or paranormal experiences while on psychedelics. David Luke, a psychologist at Greenwich University, has looked at surveys of those who used psychedelics, finding that the percentage of them who said they experienced psi phenomenon ranges from 18 to 83 percent of people depending on the group. Telepathy was the most common, but precognition, or having knowledge of an event before it happens, was also widely reported.
As psychedelics are researched for mental health conditions, and legal access to these drugs broadens, as it will in Oregon starting next year, it will be important to understand and recognize the intersection of these two topics: psychedelics and paranormal beliefs and experiences. Whether telepathy—however one wishes to define it—is veridical is something of a separate issue. But if psychedelics can lead to people believing in phenomena like telepathy, and potentially induce experiences that can challenge a person’s worldview—that’s something that people should be well informed about if they seek these drugs out for treatment.
On a larger scale, there is ongoing research into whether psychedelics do produce consistent shifts in beliefs, and how that might happen. Does it stem from the context in which people take psychedelics and external influences? Or is there something about the compounds themselves that leads people to step away from a materialist worldview in which telepathy doesn’t occur, to endorse a reality where transmitting thoughts, feelings, and images to another mind is possible?
“As psychedelics become more mainstream, we are opening up the breadth of the population who are getting access to them,” Luke said. “Once you take the cork out of the genie’s bottle, we cannot ignore these kinds of experiences.”
The word telepathy was coined in the 1880s by a British classicist named Frederick Myers, who helped found the Society for Psychical Research in London. (The word telepathy comes from the Greek root tele, meaning “from a distance,” and pathos meaning “feeling.”) He looked at thousands of case studies of people who—usually as they were close to dying—reported having communications with loved ones, and Myers would seek to confirm that those loved ones received the messages.
Many of the well-known names associated with the early days of psychedelic research were involved in experiencing and testing the parapsychological, including Albert Hofmann, Humphrey Osmond, Aldous Huxley, Gordon Wasson, Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Walter Pahnke, Al Hubbard, and Stanislav Grof, to name a few.
Watch more from VICE:
Luke is one of the people who knows most about the overlap between psi-experiences and psychedelics, and has written several review papers on this cross-over and documented it in his book Other Worlds: Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience.
“Pretty much all of the first discoverers, explorers, and encounters with psychedelics, they all had their own kind of paranormal-like experience,” Luke said. “The literature is replete with this. A lot of those earliest researchers and explorers were all very much on board with the idea of psychedelics inducing genuine psychic experiences.”
Humphry Osmond, who coined the word “psychedelic,” reported that in 1957, he and researcher Duncan Blewett had a telepathic experience while taking mescaline. They “successfully transmitted telepathic information in an informal experiment to such a degree that an independent observer became acutely panicky at the uncanniness of the event, though, unfortunately, no formal experiment with a larger sample is reported,” Luke wrote.
Osmond’s close friend, the writer Aldous Huxley, promoted French philosopher Henri Bergson’s theory of the brain as a filter which reduced information, like sensory inputs or memories, so reality wasn’t so overwhelming. Bergson wrote that without that filter, people might be able to remember everything that had ever happened to them, or perceive everything occurring in the universe—accessing a kind of clairvoyance.
Huxley thought this was how psychedelics could lead to telepathy. He wrote that psychedelics might turn off the “reducing valve” in the brain, and people could be telepathic and have access to other mystical experiences. This theory is directly related to the title of his book, The Doors of Perception, which comes from a William Blake quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Huxley and Osmond spent a lot of time with Eileen Garrett, a psychic and “trance” medium, who is said to have communicated psychically with Huxley’s wife after she had died. With Osmond, Garrett collaborated with a psychedelic research team in Canada, and said, “I have had psychic experiences which occur at the height of the LSD experience. I believe the drug has made me a better, more accurate sensitive when I perceive, hear, think and feel.”
The psychologist Stanley Krippner, who led the Grateful Dead ESP experiment, said that he has a precognitive vision of President Kennedy’s assassination after taking psilocybin that Timothy Leary had given him. In 1965, Leary and others wrote in the Psychedelic Reader that psychedelics may serve as a “key” to the human nervous system, and unlock paranormal abilities.
J. B. Rhine, called “the father of modern parapsychology,” conducted psychedelic experiments in 1961 at the Rhine Research Center with Leary and Richard Alpert, though Luke wrote that “there was apparently too much spontaneous laughter erupting for anyone to credibly test for anything.” Al Hubbard, the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” is said to have developed psychic abilities after using LSD, and “became somewhat notorious for winning on gaming machines in casinos, his reputation being such that he was politely escorted out when he reached a certain limit of earning,” Luke wrote.
The British philosopher Gerald Heard, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, thought that all people had once been telepathic at an earlier stage, but that modern civilization had stamped it out. He believed that humans would evolve into a new stage of society where we would regain our telepathic powers.
The psychedelic therapist Stanislov Grof wrote about clients who had taken LSD and saw visions of the dead that supposedly contained unknown yet verifiable information. For example, on LSD, the wife of Walter Pahnke, who led Harvard’s Good Friday experiment, had a vision that her husband asked her to return a book that was hidden in the library.
“Although she claimed to have had no prior knowledge of the book, she managed to locate and return it,” Luke wrote. “Of course, it is possible that the knowledge of the book already lay in her subconscious.”
Since the 1960s, there’s also been evidence that people who took psychedelics, including in therapeutic settings, were likelier to believe in or, they said, experience telepathy. In 1962, a follow-up survey on people who did LSD-psychotherapy found that 78 percent of them believed that telepathy and precognition were possible. In a study on the use of LSD for alcoholism from 1959, the percentage of people who said they experienced telepathic communication increased from 49 percent to 80 percent by the second session. In the 1960s, it was common that people would expect to experience the melding of minds while taking psychedelics together; there was even a name for this: “grokking.” (The term comes from Stranger in a Strange Land, a 1961 novel popular among psychedelic seekers about a human raised by Martians who demonstrates telepathy in religious orgies.)
Beginning in the early 1950s, there have been 17 published experimental studies that used psychedelics specifically to try to induce ESP, which Luke reviewed in 2012. The results and methodologies of these studies are mixed, but their existence shows the longstanding interest in psi phenomena and the impulse to use psychedelics to study them.
There is scant direct experimental research on psychedelics and telepathy ongoing anymore, but recent survey reports show that people still self-report these experiences, and tend to believe more in telepathy after taking psychedelics, a belief which increases the more experiences they have.
Anna Lutkajtis, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sydney, has found that people who perceive telepathic communication on psychedelics often do so in two primary ways: they can talk to “others” who appear in visions, like dead relatives, plant spirits, or other entities, while some feel that “others” are imparting information to them via the direct transfer of thoughts, she said.
In a qualitative study of 30 people who took psilocybin mushrooms at a retreat, she found that three out of 30 people reported telepathic-like experiences. One person felt they knew what another participant was thinking, but did not attempt to check and see if they were right because “they felt it wasn’t particularly important.” Another looked out the window and saw a dog barking outside, and “felt they could understand the message the dog was trying to convey to its owner.” One person had a vision where she became a tree and after the experience was over, another participant said they also had a vision in which the other person was a tree.
In 2020, Petter Grahl Johnstad from the University of Bergen collected accounts of anonymous psychedelic experiences, from which 16 people reported psychedelic telepathy. In one case, a person was on LSD and cannabis, with a friend sitting at a fire at a cabin, when his “mind started to say things that I didn’t expect, things that were in my voice and had my tone quality, but were not what I was expecting myself to say. So I said to the voice: Is that you talking to me, or is that me talking to myself? And the voice said: I think you’re talking to me, dude.”
Others came to determine more subtly they were experiencing telepathy. One report described a man and his girlfriend talking to each other for about 20 minutes, but when he said something out loud, “only then did I realize that during the entire conversation I hadn’t ever actually said a word. To put it simply, my girlfriend was actually reading my mind and responding to my thoughts as if they were words I spoke.”
Luke said that when collecting such stories, “We don’t try to validate or verify individual experiences. I just listen to the stories and document them.”
What he can say assuredly is that taking psychedelics increases the likelihood of a person feeling like they have a telepathic experience. “People tend to have more psychic experiences as a result of taking psychedelics,” Luke said. “People talk about having more synchronicities, more psychic episodes, and they increase their belief in these things.”
In a recent interview with The New Statesman, timed to the release of the Netflix series How to Change Your Mind, writer Michael Pollan shared that during a mushroom trip he saw the plants in his garden in a new way, feeling their “personhood” in a way he hadn’t before.
“For the first time, I felt the presence of these plants,” he said. “They were more alive than they had ever been.”
Do psychedelics cause a belief in phenomena like telepathy, or plant consciousness? Or are people prone to these beliefs more likely to take psychedelics? Asking these questions about telepathy can be a gateway to important inquiries about how psychedelics might impact our beliefs, and whether they reliably push them in a certain direction—towards the paranormal, spiritual, or non-materialist.
There is some evidence so far that psychedelics can change people’s understanding of the nature of the mind and reality, or their metaphysics. “It’s possible that psychedelics would increase a belief in things like telepathy,” said Jules Evans, a philosopher and writer. “Which is not necessarily the same thing as making lots of people telepathic.”
These kinds of shifts are important to study, in part because in psychiatry, it is rare to have people rapidly change their beliefs in an enduring and consistent way, said Sandeep Nayak, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
A study from 2021 found that people who took psychedelics in ceremonial contexts reported shifting away from materialist world views, and closer to panpsychism— the belief that all things contain minds, including plants, animals, or inanimate objects. In a preprint from this year, which Nayak is the first author on, he and colleagues similarly found that people’s beliefs shifted more towards non-physicalist beliefs, defined as “claims that parts of reality and/or consciousness are not reducible to matter,” when they took psychedelics.
Yet psychedelic researchers still disagree about what leads to these reported belief shifts. Is there something about our cultural understanding of psychedelics that is proximal to beliefs about psychic phenomena? Or is there something intrinsic to the psychedelic experience itself, and the way that these compounds interact with human perception and mind, that leads to panpsychism?
This gets at the heart of how psychedelics encourage or introduce beliefs at all. “That’s one of the deepest questions in the field and something very interesting and worth pursuing,” said David Yaden, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic Research who studies the phenomenology of psychedelic experiences.
Phil Corlett, a neuroscientist at Yale, said that usually, the studies done on belief changes from psychedelics are from surveys, and don’t include people who have been randomized to placebo or psychedelic groups, or incorporate control over the environmental conditions people take psychedelics in.
“The [studies] are usually done in recreational users,” he said. “The type of person who is drawn to recreational use might be the type of person who’s prone to believe change. It might not work like that for everybody.”
Because of this, we could be missing important clues about what’s driving belief shifts. One way to more concretely measure belief change is to give people tasks related to beliefs in a laboratory setting. “We have the capability now to make fairly precise mathematical inferences about what people believe about what’s going to happen next to them in a task,” Corlett said.
The academic papers on belief changes have also stressed that if these shifts are occurring, we shouldn’t be hasty in determining what effects they’ll have on society more broadly, or on people’s political or moral positions in the world. Despite a common narrative that widespread psychedelic use would bring about a kind of utopia, facilitated partly through the introduction of new beliefs, this has not happened in the past, and it’s unlikely to occur in the future.
Nayak said he doesn’t view these beliefs as totally neutral, or as an automatically bettering force for society. For instance, consider the overlap between spirituality and vaccine hesitancy. “If psychedelics increase spirituality, increase anti-materialism, could psychedelics increase vaccine hesitancy?” He said. “Maybe. We don’t really know. But that would be an example of something that, at an individual level, doesn’t need to be construed as harm, but at a societal level, there should be some discussion about what that means.”
Some supernatural claims rest outside of science’s ability to test them, like broader statements about the nature of the universe. Yaden said that following the ideas of the psychologist William James, he would take those off the scientific table, and leave them to philosophy or theology instead. But with psychic-type claims, we are able to test whether what people are reporting is true.
“My very strong prediction would be that if people use psychedelics as yet another attempt to demonstrate psychic phenomena, that they would find that it does not exist or is unable to be demonstrated,” Yaden said.
Luke is now pursuing experimental work in the lab, utilizing psychedelics, like San Pedro cactus, ayahuasca, LSD, and DMT to assess precognition experimentally. He said three out of four experiments have been significant so far, but nothing has been published yet.
Will more people care to spend money and time on this topic? Even if they don’t believe in psi-experiences, for the sake of how they align with therapeutic outcomes, or how to help people make sense of them? Evans isn’t sure. “I don’t see what the possible commercial applications of psychedelic induced telepathy yet,” Evans said.
On an ethical level, there should be discussion and mention in the informed consent process, as well as in preparation, that these kinds of experiences could occur. “In terms of consent and prep, I think absolutely we need to address these a lot more—the more anomalous experiences and resulting beliefs,” Yaden said.
“It’s an interesting philosophical question,” Corlett said. “If these things are inducing such transformative experiences, can you even consent to undergoing a procedure that’s going to fundamentally change the type of person that you are? You might not be able to undo it, and you might regret doing it.”
As Wiliam Smith and Dominic Sisti wrote recently in the Journal of Medical Ethics, psychedelic experiences can bring about “significant changes in a patient’s personality and worldview. Focusing on the case of psilocybin, we argue that the peculiar features of psychedelics pose certain novel risks, which warrant an enhanced informed consent process–one that is more comprehensive than what may be typical for other psychiatric medications.”
People should be prepared for the fact they may have an experience like this that fundamentally challenges their worldview. It could be a positive challenge: “People could think that the world or universe is more interconnected than we ordinarily give it credence for,” Luke said.
But it could also be something people struggle with. The Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who studied people who reported being abducted by aliens, used the phrase “ontological shock” to describe the complex emotional state many found themselves in, or "the bleak realization that what they have experienced actually occurred and that reality as they have defined it is forever altered."
Evans wondered if there could be ramifications on the way that people conceive of their sense of self. Currently, many people, especially in the West, have a model of self that the philosopher Charles Taylor called the “buffered self.”
The buffered self stands in contrast to the “porous self,” which is connected to other beings, including spiritual ones. Today, many consider ourselves discrete entities that we are responsible for: we manage our own bodies and minds alone. If the normalization or mainstreaming of psychedelics leads to more people thinking of themselves as porous, that’s a radical shift, Evans said.
Some people from the 2020 survey experienced such a change. One person said that their thoughts and feelings merged with another. “It gives the effect that you literally ARE the other person,” they said. “That they may be a projection of your own mind. I had melded into this person, and he was effectively a projection of my own mind.”
This isn’t always an enjoyable experience. The person described how when “shadow stuff” started to arise during the trip, “there was absolutely no boundary and no way to close myself off from my friend. He experienced all that was coming up for me directly and I experienced his stuff. Frankly, I don’t know whose stuff it was, because there was one mind only.”
Johnstad noted that this perceived lack of privacy of the self and mind could be upsetting. In one case, a man who tripped with his roommate felt he was being pressured telepathically to have sex. “The entire time he was pressuring me into being gay. I repeatedly told him that I did not want to, I did not find the male body attractive and just did not want to. And he said things like ‘Well you know we are all One so what is the big deal?’”
Another person had a similar experience, when he telepathically expressed love for a friend he was tripping with, and was unsettled by it for weeks after. “For days or even weeks afterwards I had this slight paranoia that everyone can hear my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t feel safe in my own mind.”
These experiences could make people more easily influenced or controlled, Evans said. “I worry about this porousness of the self,” he said. “The entanglement of selves, which I think is one of the amazing things psychedelics do, is also what cults do: they basically collectivize the self. This is why it’s good to have a separate critical self.”
Evans has written about the need for ecstatic literacy, or how to interpret and live with such experiences. “Just because you might have unusual experiences, including telepathy, doesn’t mean that your shaman or guru is god,” he said. “Even if they’re good people. Because these incidents are so unusual for us, there’s a risk of ascribing divinity to some schmuck who gave you ayahuasca.”
At the same time, a person interpreting their psychedelic experience in a supernatural way shouldn’t be automatically pathologized or stigmatized, said Nayak. Non-materialist beliefs are found all over the world, and it’s common for people to already have paranormal interpretations of psychedelic trips. It’s just up to the individual to determine what meaning resonates with them, but also to be aware of what they might encounter.
“Much of the ethical considerations surrounding the possibility of belief changes with psychedelics can be adequately addressed by informed consent just between therapist and patient,” Nayak said. “But that requires you to be informed about what might happen.”
Ultimately, Luke said that psychedelic medicine, or legal access to psychedelics, will have to make room for many meanings—secular, medical, and neuroscientific, or supernatural. Whether this plurality will peacefully coexist has yet to be seen.
But another lesson to heed from the past: These beliefs can be held very strongly, even in the face of ambiguous evidence, and using questionable methodologies. In the Grateful Dead experiment, for instance, the two people evaluating Bessent’s dreams concluded that they were statistically significant enough in their relation to the art images, while Parise’s were not.
The authors speculated that Parise’s dreams didn’t successfully match the images because her name wasn’t shown to the concert audience, while Bessent’s was. Or, they wrote, “It may have been that during the time of the experiment, Mr. Bessent’s telepathy abilities were more sensitive than those of Miss. Parise.”
What exactly did his dream contain? For the concert that Magritte’s Philosophy in the Boudoir was shown, which depicts a headless woman dressed in a transparent gown, Bessent’s dream included “a little girl’s doll” and a “fantasy” about a “stop-watch on a card around my neck.”
On the night that The Seven Spinal Chakras was shown—a painting that shows a man in the lotus position, and all seven “chakras” brightly colored, the paper reported that Bessent’s dream testimony was, among other details: “I was thinking about rocket ships…I’m remembering a dream I had… about an energy box…and a spinal column.”
From this description, the authors concluded that Bessent had been unequivocally able to demonstrate that he received the images from the Grateful Dead audience. “The experimental situation was tightly ccontrolled; thus, extrasensory perception is the most likely explanation of the results,” they wrote. Decades later, it serves as a reminder of the difficulties with studying this phenomenon: People on psychedelics aren’t the only ones prone to see what isn’t there.
Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.