Monday, May 26, 2008

Psychedelics and paranormal experience: an interview with David Luke

by James Kent
David Luke is a parapsychology researcher at the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes, at the University of Northampton in the UK, where he researches paranormal beliefs and experiences, particularly in the context of altered states, such as via dreams and drugs. He and collaborator Marios Kittenis recently published "A preliminary survey of paranormal experiences with psychoactive drugs" in the Journal of Parapsychology, which reports on the responses from a 2005 survey of psychedelic drug users conducted via MAPS and other outlets. I recently had the chance to ask him about some of his findings.

JK: Looking at the percentages of particular paranormal phenomena reported by drug type -- such as psychedelics and mystical experience (44%) and relaxants and OBEs (36%) -- do you think this hints at the possibility of specific phenomenon being directly linked to specific receptor interactions within the brain?

DL: It would be hard to deny that there are specific neurotransmitter pathways being activated by different drugs, but it would take further research to answer your question directly. This is because it is not yet known whether it is the specific neurochemical action of the drug that causes these experiences directly or whether it is due to the states that they engender. These states may come about through a great variety of means, other than drugs, though it is conceivable that all altered states involve particular neurochemical changes. Nevertheless, These figures represent the percentage of people in the sample ever having these experiences on these drugs at any time in their life. The actual frequency with which they occur is generally quite low, usually just occasionally, although a few experiences seem to occur quite often with specific substances -- such as the experience of telepathy with cannabis and plant-entity encounters with psilocybin containing mushrooms -- but there might be stronger psychological or even transpersonal explanations for such experiences. You might expect these experiences to be more reliably repeatable if the specific neurochemistry were the only cause. Clearly set, setting, expectation, motivation, and maybe even some fundamentally esoteric properties of our ontology are at work -- because these experiences might actually be 'real' in some sense.

One way in which we might begin to distinguish between neurochemical and psychological-state causes of such experiences would be to conduct ESP experiments with people under the influence of a particular drug and compare their performance and experience to people who were reliving the experience under-post hypnotic suggestion. Fortunately this technique now appears more viable. Arthur Hastings of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California recently published a paper in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2006, 38, 273-283) indicating success at re-inducing full MDMA experiences through post-hypnotic suggestion. ESP experiments could be applied to such a technique and begin to answer your question further. ...

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