I have always wondered whether there is a correlation between religious ecstasy and narcotics ever since seeing a sadhu in India. Could the use of hallucinogens in a religious context produce the sort of mystical sensations that some religious devotees claim to have had? It seems I am not the only one to have pondered the point as evidenced by a bizarre experiment conducted by one Walter Pahnke in conjunction with LSD advocate, Timothy Leary, on Good Friday 1962 at the Marsh Chapel at Boston University.
Twenty students were asked to meet in the crypt of the chapel two hours before the service. They were then put into groups of four, two of each group being given capsules containing psilocybin or magic mushroom powder and the other two, perhaps disappointingly, given placebos. The placebo, however, contained 200 milligrams of niacin, a vitamin which produces hot flushes simulating some of the symptoms of the ‘rooms. Each group of four was chaperoned by two minders.
The guinea pigs were then led into a small chapel in the crypt where the service, including sermon, conducted by Pastor Howard Thurman was piped through to them via a loudspeaker. As the service progressed, ten of the students sat attentively, the ones who had taken the placebo. The behaviour of the other ten was more eccentric and interesting.
Some wandered around the chapel muttering to themselves, one sprawled themselves across a pew and another lay down on the floor. One enterprising student sat down at the organ and played what were described as a series of dissonant chords. Another was so taken by Thurman’s call to spread the word that they rushed out into the street whence he had to be hauled back and another had to be given an antidote.
Five of the minders, they too had been given psilocybin, behaved oddly. Even by 5 o’clock in the afternoon when Pahnke invited them all to tea to recount their experiences, those who had ingested the mushrooms were still so high that all they could do was shake their heads and say wow.
To give some intellectual rigour to what might otherwise would have been a wild Good Friday party, Pahnke had devised a questionnaire in which he hand singled out nine separate realms of experience most closely associated with religious mystical experience – things like being in harmony with yourself, the impression that time and space had been transcended, their moods, their feelings of transience and whether what they had experienced was incapable of being described verbally. The students were asked to complete the questionnaire shortly after the experiment and six months after.
When the results were analysed, none of the students who had taken the placebo had experienced any of the traits associated with a mystical experience. On the other hand, eight of the ten who had ingested the ‘rooms had experienced at least seven of the nine characteristics. The conclusions were potentially mind-blowing for the church, dissing the widely held belief that the key to a transcendental religious experience was not asceticism or intense religious devotion but a bag of magic mushrooms. It might just be down to physical brain chemistry.
Alas for Pahnke, although his doctoral thesis was accepted, he lost the funding for his research, Leary was fired and psychedelic drugs were banned. Pahnke died in a car accident in 1971. Even twenty five years later, most of the participants described the experiment as one of the high points (literally) of their spiritual life and one went as far as to say that it had such a positive effect, it made him want to check out hallucinogens at every available opportunity.