Copyright © 2003, Hattie Wells
All Rights Reserved
Reproduced by Permission of Author
Shamans and psychonauts are individuals who choose to embark upon a voyage of discovery into the universe of the mind. Such a journey is initiated via a variety of means by which a perspective shift, an altering of normal consciousness, occurs leading the subject into states of ecstasis. For psychonauts, the vehicles chosen for such an Odyssey are predominantly entheogens and alchemical alkaloids derived from visionary-inducing vegetation that grows throughout the world.
The German chemist, Arthur Heffter, was the first to gain the title of psychonaut, a name given to him by Ernst Jünger in his logbook of personal drug experimentation Annaherungen: Drogen und Rausch (Drugs and Inebriation). Heffter was defined in this way as a result of his self-experimentation with the four pure alkaloids that he had isolated from peyotl in the late 1890s. His ingestion of these alkaloids revealed mescaline hydrochloride to be the active entheogenic principle of Lophora williamsii (peyotl/peyote), and his experience marked the world’s first ‘trip’ with a purified chemical compound. As a result of this, the Heffter Technique now refers to human self-experimentation with psychoactive compounds otherwise known as the psychonautic bioassay.
Psychonautic bioassays are usually grounded in the sphere of science and attempt to shed light on questions pertaining to pharmacology, posology, cognitive psychology, ethnomedicine and anthropology. However, scientific experimentation with entheogens may also lead into mystical insight and experience thereby facilitating access to the visionary worlds frequently inhabited by shamans, artists and ascetics. In this way psychonauts are by no means confined to the methodology of Western science, and their inner voyages may bridge many worlds.
Entheogenic substances such as mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybine were all discovered by psychonauts, chemists evaluating their chemicals via bioassays. If these had not taken place a great number of valuable psychoactive drugs would have been disregarded or put on the shelf, perhaps not to be reinvestigated for years. A prime example of this was Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD. On the basis of animal tests in 1938, pharmacologists at the Sandoz laboratory determined that LSD was of little pharmacological interest, and it was due to a peculiar presentiment that Albert Hofmann returned to it five years later. In 1943 he repeated the synthesis of LSD but had to leave the laboratory due to an onset of strange physical and psychological symptoms. Assuming that it may have been the result of the substance he was working on, he conducted a series of self-experiments. The outcome of these led to his discovery of the most potent psychoactive substance known at that time.
Until US prohibition of LSD and a number of other psychoactive compounds in the late 1960’s, scientists, psychoanalysts, artists, writers and musicians alike embarked on psychonautic journeys into the unknown. Many believed and publicly claimed that they were gaining insight into the workings of the mind, the creative process and the spiritual realms previously inhabited only by those capable of having spontaneous mystical experiences. The creative activity of such individuals has contributed to the study of ways in which people may experience transcendence and the effect that this can have on their lives.
One such pioneer, the English novelist and critic Aldous Huxley, wrote about his experience with mescaline in his book entitled Doors of Perception. He stated that the entheogenic experience had the potential to “shed light on unsolved riddles such as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness.” He also suggested that such insights might bring one closer to understanding the worlds of the visionary, medium and even the mystic.
However, such a subjective approach to the study of pharmacological, psychological, and religious phenomena is still considered controversial and hotly debated. The question of whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use mind altering drugs to help us understand religious, spiritual and artistic phenomena still rages. Yet, despite prohibition and moral arguments, the employment of shamanic inebriants for spiritual purposes is extraordinarily widespread. Ceremonies and rituals that involve the subjects entering an altered state of consciousness can be found both historically and presently throughout the world, with particular prevalence in South America, Siberia, Asia and Central West Africa.
If as Weston La Barre asserts, “there were shamans before there were Gods,” then the origins of religion could potentially be explored within the context of shamanism. Thus psychonautics, whilst a comparatively new term, is certainly not a new phenomenon and one that could be considered integral to the study of religious phenomenon.
In the scientific field, the study of psychoactive compounds has been limited due to the legal steps taken by authorities around the world in the late 1960’s and the media attention that has consistently highlighted the abuse of such substances. Such attention has meant that government funding has been difficult if not impossible to obtain and many scientists have not wished to jeopardise their careers by exploring such a controversial area of research. The subjective experience (the psychonautic bioassay) is still largely disqualified and whilst pharmacological studies on animals may be useful in determining toxicity, they reveal very little of the psychoactive effects of the drug on the central nervous system and the impact the experience has on the subject over time.
Ethical procedures for human testing of psychoactive agents have been admirably established and followed by Alexander T. Shulgin and colleagues, whose self-testing of over 100 novel psychotropic agents is described in his and his wife Anne Shulgin’s 1991 book, Pihkal: A chemical love story. Such psychonautic bioassays are carried out to produce a total clinical evaluation of (novel) psychoactive compounds. The subjective experience is recorded and levels of activity carefully monitored with a number of different doses of the drug in question being examined. These experiments are carried out by a team of volunteers who are experienced at entering and being in altered states of consciousness. The experimenters are fully aware of the risks and returns to be expected (see Shulgin 1986).
Whatever the motivations for the exploration of mind-altering substances, there are a number of prominent features of the experience commonly shared. Psychonauts report seeing everything brilliantly illuminated, objects seeming to “shine from within” (Huxley, 1954). The intensification of colours and the reports of sensing the innate nature of things are experiences shared by shamans, mystics, artists, poets and psychonauts alike. The feeling of seeing the world with fresh eyes, with a “naked intensity” (Huxley), unclouded by everyday abstractions is often described. Albert Hofmann wrote that the most valuable spiritual benefit from his experiments with LSD was the “experience of the inextricable intertwining of the physical and spiritual.”
This inner-connectedness of all life forms has been upheld by the traditional shamanic worldview throughout history but was undermined by the emergence of Cartesian dualism embodied by Western science and the declaration that mankind is separate from the whole of nature. Psychonauts such as Huxley, Hofmann, Wasson and Ott have reported that the entheogenic experience could enable individuals to transcend this dominant materialistic worldview, breaking down the dualistic notion of culture vs. nature and body vs. soul. It has been argued that the assumption that mankind is separate from the rest of nature and indeed superior by way of mind, has led to the subjugation of other life forms and the exploitation and destruction of the Earth. Experiencing and appreciating the unity of life directly and perceiving the life force and energy of every living thing can therefore potentially awaken a greater ecological sensitivity and concern for the survival of the biosphere. Ironically, the subjective experiences resulting from many psychonautic bioassays carried out for Western scientific purposes point towards this unified worldview, thereby building a bridge between science and shamanism.
The psychonautic experience may provide an insight into the mechanics of perception, the creative workings of the mind, the origins of religious and ecological sensitivity, whilst simultaneously being able to provide clinical evaluations of novel psychoactive agents.
 Entheogen-nov. noun.–Plant sacrements or shamanic inebrients evoking religious ecstasy or vision, literally: becoming divine within.
Hofmann, Albert. LSD: My Problem Child. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. Orig. LSD-Mein Sorgenkind, 1979.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception, Chatto & Windus Ltd, 1954.
La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1970.
Ott, Jonathan. Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History. Kennewick, WA: Natural Products Co., 1993.
Shulgin, Alexander T, A Protocol for the Evaluation of New Psychoactive Drugs in Man
Methods and Findings in Experimental Clinical Pharmacology.1986;8(5):313-320
Shulgin, Alexander T., and Anne Shulgin. PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Berkeley, CA: Transform Press, 1991.
Wasson, R. Gordon. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolotry in Mesoamerica. Ethnomycological Studies No.7. New York: McGraw – Hill, 1980.