brain & mind – where matter meets metaphysics

3. Routes of Exploration in Neurotheology

3.1. Neurotheology and Neuroimaging

Neuroimagingis the field of science in which various technologies are used provide images of the brain structure and brain activity. MRI, for example, is magnetic resonance imaging which provides a 3 dimensional scan of the brain which can then be viewed in a computer and examined from all sides including the interior. CT scans (computerized tomography) similarly scan the brain’s structure. A fMRI is functional magnetic resonance imaging which means that brain activity is monitored rather than just the brain itself. Neuroimaging is used for various reasons, such as finding a brain tumor or measuring activity in various areas of the brain during dream-states.

To get down to the nitty-gritty, functional imaging techniques detect and measure blood flow in the brain and they measure the metabolic activity in the neuronal tissue. Like all living tissue in your body, the brain cells need fuel to work; they need to metabolize. The brain cells use oxygen and glucose as fuel and convert it into energy. Functional imaging technologies measure this metabolism in addition to regional cerebral blood flow. Generally, first a baseline scan is made of the brain in rest condition. This is also referred to as a control. [Azari, 2006, pgs. 33-36] In other words, normal brain activity is measured and serves as a base-line from which to measure some other condition, something different than the “normal” brain activity that is measured in the baseline scan. This other condition can be the dream state, meditation, an epileptic seizure and so on. The difference between the two scans is what is imaged and studied. For example, one study measured the activity of the brain of subjects reading/reciting instructions on how to use a phone card. This was used as the baseline because it is something more-or-less neutral. Brain activity was again measured when the subjects were reading/reciting religious scripture that gives them a feeling of spirituality. A children nursery rhyme was also read/recited to get a reading on a happy (not neutral but still not spiritual) feeling in the subjects. The differences between these measurements were then studied. [Azari, 2006, pg. 38]

So, neural activity is measured in the brain of subjects as they experience transcendental states as opposed to neutral states. It is the metabolism in the brain that is measured with various technologies in the field of neuroimaging.

All this is a gross simplification, of course. The metabolism that is measured is quite complex and (in my opinion) wondrous. With SPECT (single photon computed emission tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) neuroimaging light radiating from the brain is measured! As the brain metabolizes glucose and oxygen, it releases positrons; it emits photons of light. One can say that our brains glow! With fMRI, the blood flow levels in various areas of the brain are measured. This is referred to as BOLD (blood oxygenation level-dependent). Brain activity causes subtle changes in the magnetic field in and around the brain. [Azari, 2006] An fMRI machine detects these magnetic changes, generally on the inner surface of a magnetic tube. I have had my brain scanned many times with an MRI (not fMRI) and I can tell you that it is a subtly weird experience. If you pay careful attention and you are sensitive enough, you can feel something scanning your brain. It is also quite loud and earplugs are recommended.

Studies with neuroimaging demonstrate that activity in specific areas of the brain coincide with religious feelings and experiences. [McKinney, 1994]

As Nina P. Azari writes in Neuroimaging Studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review, “The role the human brain plays in any experience cannot be assessed without recourse to the human neurosciences…Hence, neuroscience, specifically, studies of the live human brain, may have something important to contribute to the non-neuroscientific literature on the topic of religious experience. The question of interest from a neuroscientific perspective is ‘What is going on in the brain when a person reports having a religious experience?’…Functional neuroimaging techniques have made it possible, for the first time, to study brain function in normal, living humans, so afford an opportunity to investigate phenomena considered unique to human beings, more specifically, ‘higher-order’ cognitive functions.” [Azari, 2006]

In other words, to some extent, thoughts, feelings and other brain activity can be monitored and mapped with technology and therefore we can graph the activity in the brain during transcendental experiences. This mapping becomes more sensitive and sophisticated as the field of neuroimaging develops.

Psychologist David Wulf claims that neuroimaging, coupled with the fact that spiritual experiences are universal across human cultures and throughout history “suggest a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain” [McKinney, 1994]

In 2001, the European Journal of Neuroscience printed a study entitled “Neural Correlates of Religious Experience” by Azari et al in which it was found that “During religious recitation, self-identified religious subjects activated a frontal-parietal circuit, composed of the dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal and medial parietal cortex.” in other words, functional neuroimaging technology showed that while reading religious scripture aloud, religious–minded individuals displayed activity in special areas of the brain that are different than that of every-day mental activity. [Azari et al, 2001] It must be pointed out here that although a religious-minded person does experience an alteration of consciousness when reciting religious scripture, usually this is not nearly as intense of an experience as what we call the “religious experience” itself. Nonetheless, this study shows that current neuroimaging is sophisticated and sensitive enough to show a difference in the mental activity of scripture-reading by a religious person which is interesting enough itself.

In the book Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg M.D., Eugene d’Aquili and coauthors (published in 2001) [Newberg, d’Aquili, 2001]studies of neuroimaging of meditating Buddhists and of Franciscan nuns in prayer are discussed among other things. As the publisher blurbs, “the sensation that Buddhists call ‘oneness with the universe’ and the Franciscans attribute to the palpable presence of God is not a delusion or a manifestation of wishful thinking but rather a chain of neurological events that can be objectively observed, recorded, and actually photographed. The inescapable conclusion is that God is hard-wired into the human brain.”

Among other things, their neuroimaging studies seemed to indicate that during transcendental experiences, the brain has decreased activity in the “object association areas” which make the distinction between the self and the non-self. [Newberg, d’Aquili, 2001] As Newberg says, “[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer,” in comparison with the same brains in a neutral mode. “This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices.”
Dr. Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College. He is also Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nuclear Medicine.

Dr. Newberg has conducted “neuroimaging research projects on the study of aging and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.” In one study, individuals with memory problems were asked to practice meditation a little each day in effort to improve their memory. After eight weeks of practice, “they had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent…this is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.”

He has since worked on issues more central to “neurotheology” and seems to have an open-minded approach. On National Public Radio, Dr. Newberg said of the neuroimaging conducted under the label “neurotheology” that “one could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that,” Newberg says. “For neurotheology to really work as a field it needs to be very respectful and open to both perspectives.” [NPR, 2010]

Richard Davidson, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has used fMRI and EEG neuroimaging on six Buddhist monks already trained in meditation practices while they meditated specifically on raising compassion in themselves. During such meditation, neuroimaging showed a significant rise in activity of the left frontal lobe in the trained monks in contrast to individuals that were not trained in meditation. This study was conducted in association with the Mind and Life Institute and was discussed a the conference, held in 2000, Mind and Life VIII – Destructive Emotions. Selected dialogues from this conference were published in the book Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, edited by Daniel Goleman, 2003. We will return to the Mind and Life Institute in a dedicated section below.

It has been reported that Mario Beauregard, Ph.D.  has conducted experiments (in 2006) involving neuroimaging of the brains of nuns in ‘mystical states’ through prayer which seem to demonstrate that religious and spiritual experiences correlate with various areas of the brain and not just what some have been calling the ‘God center’ or the ‘God spot’. [Beauregard, 2006] He has says, “There is no God spot in the brain. Spiritual experiences are complex, like intense experiences with other human beings.” In his neuroimaging experiments with Carmelite nuns, several areas of the brain were active.

However, upon inspection it is clear that his neuroimaging was conducted when the nuns remembered past mystical states and not while actual experiencing mystical states; “subjects were asked to remember and relive (eyes closed) the most intense mystical experience ever felt in their lives as a member of the Carmelite Order.” [Beauregard, 2006] Like psychedelic and other transcendental states, mystical states are what is called ‘state-specific’; one can not recreate the mystic state by memory any more than one can be drunk by remembering a time when they actually were drunk. There has been much criticism of the arguably pseudoscientific or unscientific conclusions that Beauregard has drawn from his already highly questionable neuroimaging experiments. Indeed, his book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul co-authored by Denyse O’Leary seems to lack sound logic and ignores basic scientific reasoning with an unvalidated anti-materialist bias.

Mr. Beauregard seems to have an agenda to discredit the idea of the ‘God-spot’ in order to promote the idea that religious experiences are not in and of the brain or material at all but rather purely spiritual. But his studies and his writing do very little, if any, in service to this agenda. Beauregard seems to be of the camp that maintains the view that the cause is spiritual and that the brain activity is the effect.

Nina P. Azari’sNeuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review has been mentioned and quoted above. Her intent here is to “offer a critical review of functional neuroimaging studies that have investigated religious experience (broadly conceived). The purpose of this review is to explore the extent to which neuroimaging studies may provide new insight into the nature and structure of religious experience.” [Azari, 2006]

She goes on to describe the functional imaging techniques that are used in such studies. She then discusses “the interpretive limits of any neuroimaging study (regardless of the topic of inquiry) and explore how they apply in the case of religious experience.” [Azari, 2006]

She then describes “each study (i.e., methods, results, conclusions) and offer a critical examination of the assumptions associated with those studies (especially as regards the concepts ‘religious’ and ‘experience’).” and “Finally, I will discuss how the recent neuroimaging studies, taken together, stand in relation to current non-neuroscientific theorizing about the nature and structure of religious experience. I conclude the chapter by considering prospects for future research.” [Azari, 2006]

3.2. Neuropharmacology

Psychoactive substances have been used to induce transcendental experiences since prehistory. However, it can not be said that they were used in a scientific manner until relatively recent times and therefor we will not go into great detail here. But we can not ignore the spiritual use of mind-altering substances because the alteration of the brain chemistry correlating with transcendental experiences is clearly within the scope of what is being called “neurotheology” today. We will content ourselves with a grossly abbreviated historical summary before moving on to modern scientific study.

In the Vedic tradition of Hinduism, it is clear that a psychoactive substance called soma was of central and seminal importance but its use and identity has been lost centuries ago. In Persia, haoma fulfilled the same religious role and its identity and use has also been lost long ago. In ancient Greece, a psychoactive substance called kykeon was used by initiates into the Eleusynian Mysteries. Like soma and haoma, the ingredient(s) of kykeon remains uncertain. It is no mystery that peoples of the Americas have long used peyote and San Pedro cacti (both containing mescaline), psilocybe mushrooms (containing psilocybin), ayahuasca and other hallucinogens for spiritual purposes. These are merely a few examples, but such substances have been and still are used throughout the world for spiritual purposes.

However, in Western culture the knowledge and use of such substances were more or less stamped out by Christian ignorance and were forgotten for centuries. In Europe, the use of hallucinogenic plants was viewed as a pagan abomination. Herbal healers were persecuted and the knowledge and practice was driven underground. So complete was the church’s eradication of this knowledge that, as author Marcus Boon points out, “When one reads the literature on witchcraft in medieval Europe, it is striking that the question of whether actual plants could have triggered phenomena associated with witchcraft was hardly even considered until about a decade ago.” [Boon, 2006] He was writing in 2002!

But the war against this knowledge was not just a phenomena of the Dark (Christian) Ages. It has lasted for centuries with only temporary resting periods. When encountered again in the new world, hallucinogens were treated with more Christian ignorance. The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, for example, was observed by the Spanish conquistadors, viewed as the Devil’s mockery of the Holy Sacrament and stamped out violently. The Spanish Franciscan friar and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagun wrote about the use of peyote among the natives in 1560 [Sahagun, 1961] and decided that their visions were of the Devil. In 1620, a decree from the Catholic Inquisition officially banned the practice. It was declared that these “herbs” were a means by which the Devil ensnared souls. The decree said that the use of peyote is “a superstitious action and reproved as opposed to the purity and sincerity of our Holy Catholic Faith, being so that this said herb, nor any other cannot posses the virtue and natural efficacy attributed to it for said effects, nor to cause the images, phantasms and representations on which are founded said divination, and that in these one sees notoriously the suggestion and assistance of the Devil…” [Ott, 1993]

In effect, the Church had decided that there was no natural science behind the effects of these hallucinogens, that their effects were entirely spiritual (albeit from the Devil) and that any use or study of these hallucinogens was banned with extreme prejudice. The European invaders hunted down those who still used these sacred substances until its use and knowledge disappeared from the frontier and hid deep in the mountains, jungles and deserts, far out of sight. So effective was this violent purge that even in the early 20th century scientists doubted that psilocybe mushrooms existed despite clear accounts of them by the Inquisitors who had banned them! It was insisted that dried peyote cacti had been mistaken for mushrooms!1.

This rabid dogged attitude was somewhat relaxed in the 1800s when commercial pharmaceutical and anthropological interests swelled. It was in the 1800’s that the potent hallucinogen ayahuasca was discovered by Western man and in which peyote was rediscovered. “The first account of the effects of peyote ingestion was given in 1887 by John Briggs, a physician in Dallas, Texas. Little attention was paid, however, and thus the account in the British Medical Journal of 1896 by the American psychiatrist, physician, and historical romance writer S. Weir Mitchell is usually considered the first one.” [Boon, 2002]

It was also in this century that psychoactive anesthetics like nitrous oxide and ether were discovered. These substances have triggered transcendental experiences that astounded many even if the revelations are usually forgotten within seconds. Some important thinkers have written about these experiences in the 19th century, an era before the anti-drug dogma of more recent decades.

Henry David Thoreau, a leadingtranscendentalist philosopher had a transcendental experience with ether during a dentist visit in 1851. He had an experience of the bodiless state that exists between lives or incarnations that is analogous to the out of body experience, the near death experience, the Tibetan Bardos and so on. We will return to this in a following section. [Thoreau, 1906]

The writer/philosopher/mystic Benjamin Paul Blood received ether during a dentist visit in 1860 and continued to experiment with ether for years after. He wrote that the ether experience provided a revelation that contained the inexpressible solution to all philosophical issues, especially those concerning the self and the universe. He wrote, “No poetry, no emotion known to the normal sanity of man can furnish a hint of its primeval prestige, and its all but appalling solemnity.” [Blood, 1874]

The British Society for Psychical Research was inspired by Blood’s claim that nitrous oxide could give one the experience of metaphysical illumination. Members of the society went on to experiment themselves. Blood’s experiments also spurred the American psychiatrist and philosopher William James to experiment with anesthetics. James reviewed Blood’s The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy in the Atlantic Monthly in 1874 [James, 1874] and wrote about his own experience in 1882 with the Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide [James, 1882] In 1896 he wrote about experiences with these substances, “With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination.” [James, 1896] His Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide was published in Psychological Review in 1898. He included his thoughts and reflections on the nitrous oxide experience in his master-work The Varieties of the Religious Experience, published in 1902. One of his most famous quotes concerns the nitrous oxide experience, about which he said that, “our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” [James, 1902]

William James is still occasionally referred to as the “nitrous oxide philosopher”. For the sake of fairness, I must say that this is a very narrow moniker for James. The scope of his work very broad and deep and more-or-less encompassed the entirety of the religious experience. [James, 1902] However, as a trigger of profound mystical experiences (and only because it gave him profound mystical experiences), nitrous oxide was an indispensable influence on his life and work.

What is relevant about William James here is not only that he had transcendental experiences with nitrous oxide, but also that he balanced the scientific with the mystical. He took an empirical approach to matters of religion and mysticism and applied his background in psychology and philosophy and yet he was eager to actually have religious/mystical experiences himself so as to fully understand them. He studied the transcendental from both inside and outside; both objectively and subjectively. Because of this, I argue that he is an important precursor to “neurotheology”, as is Crowley, Huxley, Smith, Leary, Alpert, Watts and others. No doubt, if neuroimaging technology was available in Jame’s time, he would have included it in his studies. He did, however, use what was available to study these experiences. James experimented with chloral hydrate in 1870, amyl nitrate in 1875, nitrous oxide in 1882 and peyote (which contains mescaline) in 1896. In academic culture, this is downplayed while in the counter-culture it is often forgotten that he was a great scholar and had tremendous academic knowledge and education.

This somewhat liberated attitude of the later 1800’s regarding consciousness-altering substances was temporary as is illustrated by the cultural divide on William James mentioned above, for example. Today, these early explorers are regarded with suspicion or else ignored by the academic authorities (with the governments’ leashes around their necks) that ought to be ashamed of their own lack of objectivity in this area. Atlantic Monthly‘s Dmitri Tymoczko writes that “James’s experiments with nitrous oxide, when they have been noticed at all, have been variously derided. Even in the nineteenth century, skeptical scientists found his interest in exotic mental phenomena misguided, if not reckless. Religious believers tend to resent the comparison of intoxication to religious inspiration. Veterans of the counterculture, who have all had similar if not more-intense drug revelations, tend to think of James as a dabbler. These criticisms are shortsighted, and slight the fact that James was America’s first philosophical genius. Perhaps more than any philosopher before him, he succeeded in combining the skepticism of the empirical scientist, the form of consciousness that ‘diminishes, discriminates, and says no,’ with the hyperbole of the mystical visionary, the form of consciousness that ‘expands, unites, and says yes.’ If drugs helped him to open the doors of consciousness in this welcoming way, perhaps we should rethink some of our assumptions about drug use and its possible role in human life. For example, can drugs play a role in authentic religious experience? And if so, what should be the legal and moral status of religious drug use?” [Tymoczko, 1996]

I agree with Tymoczko emphatically when he writes that “William James thought more clearly about these issues than we are able to think today, and we may want to look to James as we consider the place of drugs in contemporary life.” [Tymoczko, 1996] Indeed!

I stated earlier that this ignorance was not just a Dark Age phenomena and that it has lasted for centuries. I state here that it persists today. The only difference is that rather than the church (which has no valid authority to decide matters of science and medicine) leading the ban, the government (which has no valid authority to decide matters of science and medicine) now holds the torch and pitchfork at the head of the mob and holds the reigns it has placed on science and academia. It is just as ludicrous that politicians decide what science can or can not study as it was for the church to make such decisions. In the 1960s a decree from the U.S. government (which was not much less ignorant than the Inquisition) again effectively banned both use and study of these hallucinogens in the USA and in ally nations, tying one arm of science behind its back while scientists behind the Iron Curtain were free to make progress in the area. This ban largely persists even now in the early 21st century. Only with long bureaucratic battles can a scientist study these substances in the least.

In the late 1990s, after years of bureaucratic chess with the government, Rick Strassman M.D. was given permission to study the hallucinogenic substance DMT in a carefully controlled medical context. Strassman is the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine in Albuquerque where he conducted experiments in which volunteers were given DMT. DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) is a chemical found in various plants and animals, including humans. In humans, evidence suggests that it is produced in the pineal gland in the brain. Strassman argues that like serotonin, a close cousin, DMT is essential for normal consciousness (at low levels) and dream-states (at higher levels). All the ingredients and enzymes needed to produce DMT are already in the pineal gland and it has been conclusively demonstrated that the human body does contain DMT. However it has not been conclusively demonstrated that DMT it is produced by the pineal gland specifically, though it is the most plausible candidate.

The pineal gland is where mystics claim the “third-eye” chakra resides. DMT acts just like other neurotrasmitters such as serotonin and melatonin but with drastically different subjective effects. It has been theorized that the pineal gland releases DMT into the brain during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and may be related to vivid dreams, out of body experiences (OBEs), experiences of disembodied entities and so on.

Sufficient doses of DMT produce effects much like very large doses of psilocybe mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.). In fact DMT and psilocybin are very similar (and both are very similar to serotonin); the psilocybin molecule (4-PO-DMT) is a DMT molecule with an extra part or “appendage”. It is not necessary to go into great detail here. Suffice to say that DMT, psilocybin, melatonin and serotonin are all very similar to each other and act in very similar ways in the human brain.

In Dr. Strassman’s studies, DMT was administered in a controlled laboratory setting in 400 sessions conducted on 60 volunteers. The subjects very commonly had experiences of encounters with disembodied entities like angels, gods, or ‘inter-dimensional aliens’. They also commonly felt as if they had left their body and were in some ‘other space’ or dimension, often inside a round room, a flying saucer, a bubble or something analogous. Most of the subjects reported that their experience was powerfully spiritual or ‘transcendent’ and intensely vivid in both color and detail, reportedly sometimes more so than what they can see with their physical eyes.

Dr. Strassman has published his findings in both scientific papers and in a book for the general public calledDMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences (2001). In the book, Strassman claims that DMT is first produced in the brain of the human fetus in its 49th day. This is also the prenatal period when we see the first pineal tissue in the fetus, when we first see signs of male or female traits. He notes that in Tibetan Buddhism, it is thought that after death the soul remains out of body for 49 days. It is said that it enters an unborn fetus on its 49th day of conception. Strassman also says that as the body dies, the pineal gland floods the brain with DMT. Indeed, the DMT experience is analogous to the near death experience (NDE). If and when the brain is flooded with DMT, one has the experience of death whether or not one actually dies or remains dead. If the DMT experience is analogous to the experience of death, death is analogous to the DMT experience. Put it all together and this suggests that a dose of DMT from the pineal gland correlates with the soul’s transition into and out of the human body. [Strassman, 2001, 2005, 2008]

Dr. Strassman has also since (legally) conducted experiments with psilocybin which is similar to DMT. Both DMT and psilocybin are very similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin in molecular structure and while they act in almost exactly the same way in the brain, DMT and psilocybin induce somewhat different experiences than each other and radically different states of consciousness than serotonin.

In 2006 a study conducted at John Hopkins Medical Institute was released and printed in the journal Psychopharmacology in July, 2006 titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” [Griffiths, 2006]This was a double-blind study in which psilocybin was administered to volunteers who were “hallucinogen-naïve adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities.” [Griffiths, 2006] The subjects answered a questionnaire immediately after the session and 2 months later. In addition, “community observers” rated changes in the subjects’ attitudes and behaviors. The study found that psilocybin “increased measures of mystical experience.” and that “At 2 months, the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers.” The study concluded that “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequences.” [Griffiths, 2006] The questionnaire also revealed that a majority of the subjects rated their psilocybin experience to be among the top 5 most meaningful experiences in their life and roughly 15% stated that it was the single most meaningful experience of their entire life.

I pause to note here that this study, like the follow-up study on the participants of the Marsh Chapel Experiment (mentioned above in the section “Early Use of the Term ‘Neurotheology’ and Early Scientific Inquiry) with psilocybin, shows that subjects displayed altered traits and not just altered states. This is important, as has stated and written in various places by Huston Smith who is both an expert in world religions and, as noted above, quite familiar with psychedelics. 2.

Ian McGregor, a professor of pharmacology states that it is not surprising that the study showed that psilocybin can induce a mystical state. “Psilocybin and related hallucinogens have been used since ancient times in religious rituals and this study is really formalising [sic]…what many people already know,” However, he has stated that the longer term positive effects on the subjects is “remarkable” and that “to see a positive effect two months later is quite striking.” [Skatsoon, 2006] Also commenting on the study, professor of pharmacy David Nichols stated that this study suggests that psilocybin produces similar “molecular alterations in the brain that underlie religious and mystical experiences” and that psilocybin apparently causes changes in the brain that are analogous those produced by fasting, meditation, sleep deprivation or near-death experiences that result in religious experiences. [Griffiths, 2006] Professor McGregor also says that the study makes a significant contribution to the field of “neurotheology” and offers insight into “molecular alterations in the brain that underlie religious and mystical experiences”. [Griffiths, 2006]

3.3. Psychology

(…yet to come…)

3.4 Electro-Magnetic Stimulation

In the 1980s, neuroscientist Dr. Michael Persinger experimented with the “Koren helmet” which emits a complex magnetic fluctuation stimulating the temporal lobe in the brain of the subject wearing it. It was reported that the magnetic stimulation induced mystical or religious experiences, altered states of consciousness and seemingly paranormal experiences such as intense experience of disembodied entities or aliens present in the room. [Persinger, 1983]This prompted the renaming of the Koren Helmet to the “God Helmet”. Though sensationalized in the media, it should be mentioned that these experiments have not successfully replicated by other researchers. It seems the only independent research failed to manifest the incredible results of Dr. Persinger. [Granqvist, 2005]

3.5. Isolation Tanks

(…yet to come…)


1. So utterly complete was the neglect and ignorance in our western world of the ethnoborological [sic] aspects of Aztec and other Mexican shamanism, that in 1915, William E. Safford, a reputable and distinguished USA botanist who was than [sic] a sort of expert on the subject of many Native American psychotropic plants, claimed that the visionary mushrooms as described in the Spanish histories did not in fact exist and that the Mesoamérican Indians had never used such, whether before, during, or after the conquest. Disdaining the graphic testimony of several Spanish chroniclers, Safford dismissed the well-documented evidence of the chroniclers, mostly clerics, who described as mushroomic, the effects the mushrooms allegedly had upon those who consumed them.

Safford (1915) presented a botanical society the results of his study of an Aztec sacred inebriant referred to in a few historical sources as teonanácatl which means “wondrous mushroom.” He claimed that the so-called wondrous mushrooms were in fact dried peyote buttons and that no mushrooms had been used as inebriants by the native peoples of Mesoamérica. Safford’s colleagues displayed little interest when he claimed that the word teonanácatl simply meant peyote. In his paper, he reproduced a photograph of dried peyote buttons. These could easily have been mistaken for dried mushroom-caps, which is what they vaguely resembled to the untrained eye. Safford relied on the fact that “three centuries have failed to reveal that an endemic fungus is being used as an intoxicant in Mexico. Nor is such a fungus mentioned either in works on mycology or pharmacology, yet the belief prevails even now that there is a narcotic Mexican fungus.”

“…As late as 1921, Safford still held firm to his theory by again denying the existence of the sacred mushrooms, claiming that they were simply dried peyote buttons…”

“…thanks to [Safford’s] prominence the mushrooms continued to be obscured from the world until the late 1930’s when they were once again brought to the attention of the scientific community.”

“…In the second decade of this century, Austrian Blas Pablo Reko (1919), a physician with an interest in ethnobotany, learned that some groups of Indians living in the Mexican state of Oaxaca were still using psychoptic mushrooms in secret ceremonies perhaps involving ancient rites. These rites were performed apparently for the purpose of divinatory healing. Reko published his findings in a journal entitled El México Antiguo”

“…Reko subsequently discussed this discovery with his colleagues, who paid little attention to his mushroomic theories and showed no interest in pursuing this information on the supposititious [sic] use of inebriating mushrooms by the Indians of Mesoamérica.” – Allen, John W. (2006) Mushroom Pioneers 


2. “The goal is not altered states but altered traits.” – The way things are: conversations with Huston Smith on the spiritual life by Huston Smith edited by Phil Cousineau, 2003, University of California Press, Berkely. “altered traits are more important than altered states.” The Essential Rumi by Rumi, 1997, Harper San Francisco. “I am fond of the maxim that religious life is not about altered states but about altered traits.” in Smith, Huston interviewed by Timothy White. (1998). “Understanding Psychedelic Mysticism: An Interview with Huston Smith”. Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism Number 49, Summer 1998


Azari, et al;. 2001, “Neural Correlates of Religious Experience”, European Journal of Neuroscience 13(8):1649-52, 200

Azari, Nina P., 2006, “Neuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review” in McNamara, Patrick, Ed. Where God and science Meet – How Brain and Evolutionary studies Alter our Understanding of Religion 2006, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT

Beauregard, Mario. (2006). “Neural Correlates of a Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”, Neuroscience Letters. 26 June 2006

Blood, Benjamin Paul. (1874). The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy cited in Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Granqvist, P; Fredrikson, M; Unge, P; Hagenfeldt, A; Valind, S; Larhammar, D; Larsson, M (2005). “Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields”. Neuroscience Letters 379 (1): 1–6

Griffiths, R.R., W. A. Richards, U. McCann & R. Jesse “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” Psychopharmacology, July 11, 2006 Received: 20 January 2006 / Accepted: 27 May 2006, CopyrightSpringer-Verlag 2006.

James, William (1874). (Review of) “The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy”, The Atlantic Monthly; November 1874;Volume 33, No. 205; pages 627-628.

James, William, (1882) “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide.” Mind. 1882; Vol 7.

James, William. 1917 [1896]. “On Some Hegelisms” in James, The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy

James, William. (1902). The Varieties of the Religious Experience

McKinney, L (1994). Neurotheology:Virtual Religion in the 21st Century

Newberg, Andrew; d’Aquili, Eugene; Rause, Vince; (2001). Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine Books

NPR online, December 15th, 2010

Ott, Jonathan. (1993). Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History, Natural Products Co., Kennewick, WA, ISBN: 0-9614234-2-0, ISBN: 0-9614234-3-9

Persinger, M A (1983). “Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: a general hypothesis.”. Perceptual and motor skills 57 (3 Pt 2): 1255–62

Sahagun, Bernardino de (1961). Florentine Codes: General History of the Things of New Spain vol. II (book 10)

Skatsoon, Judy. (2006). Magic Mushrooms Hit the God Spot, ABC Online, July 12, 2006

Strassman, Rick (2001) DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences, 320 pages, Park Street Press, 2001

Strassman, Rick (2005) Hallucinogens (chapter), in Mind-Altering Drugs: The Science Of Subjective Experience, 402 pages, Oxford University Press, 2005

Strassman, Rick (with Slawek Wojtowicz, Luis Eduardo Luna and Ede Frecska), (2008) “Inner Paths to Outer Space: Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies” , 376 pages, Park Street Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1594772245

Thoreau, Henry David 1906. Writings of H.D. Thoreau. 20 vols. Boston: Houghton Milton cited in Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Tymoczko, Dmitri. (1996). “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher”, Atlantic Monthly, May 1996

The neologism (new word) neurotheology seems to have been first used in print in 1962 in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian opposite to his dystopian novel Brave New World. In the story, neurotheology is a disciplined study of religious experiences. Huxley (1894-1963), a prescient thinker, was often ahead of the zeitgeist with his ideas. Some of the areas of Huxley’s neurotheology would be considered pseudoscience, but overall he was a vanguard trail-blazing into previously uncharted territory of inquiry through a work of plausible fiction. By this time he had his religious experience with the help of mescaline and had written The Doors of Perception (published in 1953) which described his experience. After The Doors of Perception and both before and after Island, Huxley would experiment with LSD. Huxley used psychedelics in a careful, controlled manner with the objective of empirically studying transcendental states of consciousness. But Huxley was not the first to attempt to study transcendental experiences in a scientific manner, only the first to use the word “neurotheology”.

William James (1842-1910), a prominent psychologist, philosopher and trained physician was intensely interested in the religious experience and the altered states of consciousness afforded by mind-altering substances. He gave a series of lectures which were later collected in the bookThe Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902 [James, 1902]. Insofar as could be done in his time, he attempted to make a rational, scholarly, systematic and scientific study of transcendental experiences. James wrote that “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” [James, 1902].James attempted to “synthesize scientific, psychological and religious points of view…It was entirely in keeping with Jamesian pragmatism that if there were such things as mystical or transcendental states, they should be verifiable through a repeatable experience” [Boon, 2002] We will return to William James more than once in this essay.

Louis Lewin (1850-1929), a German pharmacologist, was among the first to examine and write about mind-altering substances in a scientific manner. [Lewin, 1874, 1894, 1931]The peyote cactus was originally given its scientific name Anhalonium lewenii in honor of Lewis (but was later reclassified as Lophophora williamsii). Lewin thought of visions such as those that Ezekiel had “as hallucinatory experiences, equivocating between his own feelings of religious faith and the notion that ‘visionary states are…generally temporarily limited intermediate and transitory states caused by substances produced in the organism.’ ” [Lewin, 1931]His hypothesis that the human body can produce vision-inducing substances was very ahead of his time. As we will see, it was not until the late 1900’s/early 2000s that Dr. Rick Strassman would attempt to verify that the human brain produces the vision-inducing DMT.

The polymath Cambridge man Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) made early attempts at a rational approach transcendental experiences with meditation, ritual, and mind-altering substances in various writings in the early 1900s. He coined the term “Scientific Illuminism” and publishedThe Equinox (running from 1909 to 1998) which was “The Review of Scientific Illuminism”. Scientific Illuminism can be summarized by the motto “the method of science, the aim of religion” which was printed on the masthead of each issue of The Equinox. This early attempt at using the scientific method to study transcendental experiences is a foreshadow of today’s neurotheology. Crowley considered the psychological and neurological correlation of transcendental experiences in various writings, much of which was printed in The Equinox. Crowley kept careful notes of his experiments with meditation, ritual magic, yoga, and such substances as hashish and peyote. Experienced with meditation, he considered the experience of a very strong dose of hashish to be roughly analogous to the mystical experience. In fact, he explicitly wrote that a large dose of hashish could give a weary student of meditation a preview of what sober meditation practices may one day achieve. He wrote, “I have no use for hashish save as a preliminary demonstration that there exists another world attainable – somehow.” [Crowley, 1909]

Crowley came of age in Edwardian England in a younger generation than the American William James and the German Louis Lewin, in a social climate where the use of mind-altering substances to study consciousness was looked at more suspiciously. More so than James, Crowley had to counter the prejudice against mind-altering substances in his culture, though they were all available at pharmacy shoppes. He reminds the reader of a time when the micro-organisms discovered with microscopes were viewed with great suspicion and makes a brilliant analogy; “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.” [Crowley, 1909] This analogy was picked up decades later by Alan Watts and Timothy Leary.1

What is important here is that Crowley was very clear about maintaining a skeptical attitude about the subjective nature of transcendental experiences and that he insisted that if mind-altering substances were to be used, that they be used by persons with extensive physical and mental training and then only in a careful, methodical, scientific manner. The individual experimenting with these substances were to have background education in the philosophies, psychology, theology and in both Western and Eastern mysticism. Otherwise, the seed would fall on barren ground. 1

In the mid-1900s, vice president of J.P. Morgan and Co. and amateur mycologist, R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) went in search of the almost unheard-of ‘magic mushroom’ in Southern Mexico in a serious of expeditions. He eventually found what he was looking for. On the night of June 29th-30th, 1955, Wasson and photographer Allan Richardson attended the ritual of a Mazatec healer Maria Sabina in which they ate a considerable dose of psilocybe mushrooms. They both had a profound religious experience. Wasson wrote about this experience in an article for LIFE magazine. In his article, Maria Sabina’s name was changed to Eva Mendez and the village location was not given in attempt to shield her from tourism. [Wasson. 1957] Wasson would later write at length about the hypothesis that natural hallucinogens gave rise to religious thinking in human-kind. [Wasson, 1968; Wasson, R. Gordon, et al., 1978; Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck, 1986]2..

We will now return to Huxley. Huxley was very influential to the eminent religious studies scholar Huston Smith (who would go on to augment his religious and philosophical studies with psychedelics), psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary (1920-1996), Dr. Richard Alpert AKA Ram Dass (1931-present), Dr. Richard Metzner (1936-present) and many others. Huxley, Leary, Metzner and John Spiegel (later president of the American Psychiatric Association) and others worked as founding board members for the Harvard Psilocybin Project which operated from 1960 to 1962. Huston smith and Dr. Richard Alpert would work with Huxley, Leary, Metzner and others in various studies with psychedelics. [Alpert, Leary and Metzner, 1964; Dass, 1971. 1974, 1977; Huxley, 1932, 1954, 1962; Lattin, 2010; Leary 1968, 1968, 1973, 1977; White, 1998]

Though some of the Harvard Psilocybin Project made advances in more down-to-earth psychology such as the Concord Prison Experiment which was highly successfully in rehabilitating prison inmates, it also studied the application of psychedelics in religion and spirituality. The Marsh Chapel Experiment (also called the “Good Friday Experiment”) was a double-blind study in which volunteer graduate students of divinity school were given either a placebo or psilocybin during the Good Friday service in Marsh Chapel. This study demonstrated that under the right conditions, psychedelics can give one a profound religious experience that left lasting positive traits. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) followed up with the subjects in 1991 and found that they all considered their session with psilocybin to be a positive turning point in their spiritual and practical lives. 3 In this and many other experiments by Leary, Alpert, Metzner, Smith and many others both within and without the Harvard Psilocybin Project, it was demonstrated that in the proper set and setting, psychedelics were extremely conducive for transcendental/spiritual/mystic/religious experiences and for making lasting positive changes in the individual’s psychological, emotional, spiritual and practical life.

Huston Smith (1919-present) is considered a world authority on comparative religion today. Though he studied religion and spirituality for decades preceding his psychedelic experiences, he never felt he truly understood religious experiences until he had his own on psychedelics. Like Huxley, he was a strong advocate for careful use of psychedelics with the intent on producing religious experiences. He has written some excellent work on the mystical and religious aspects of psychedelics (see hisCleansing the Doors of Perception [Smith, 2000] Leary, Alpert and others would go on to be more loose and egalitarian in their experiments, conducting much experimentation in situations well outside of formal science and academia. Understandably, much criticism has been leveled at them and their camp and their lives took on some wild transformations which are beyond the scope of this essay.

Beside Huxley, these researchers did not seem to use the term “neurotheology” in their studies but it is exactly what they were conducting and this is why they are discussed here. They were conducting “neurotheology” with what technologies and knowledge they had at the time – mainly pharmacology and psychology. They also incorporated “spiritual technologies” such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and continued studies of Eastern mysticism such as Tibetan tantra. In fact, Leary, Alpert and Metzner would use the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which was meant to guide the soul of dying and dead individuals towards the “light at the end of the tunnel”) to guide psychedelic trips, enabling the individual to go through a death-and-rebirth experience while perfectly alive. [Alpert, Leary, Metzner, 1964]

Meanwhile, behind the iron curtain, Dr. Stan Grof (1931-present) was independently studying LSD on hundreds of volunteers in a psychiatric context with no religious expectations. Though mutually unaware of the similar experiments in the United States, he too would see that psychedelics could impart transcendental/religious experiences resulting in life-long positive changes.

On the western side of the cold war, LSD, psilocybin and mescaline would be banned and scheduled as highly illegal substances (LSD in 1968, psilocybin and mescaline in 1970), effectively ending all scientific and medical study of these substances in the West.

Turning back to the 1950s again, Dr. John Lilly (1915-2001) was experimenting with isolation tanks which by themselves can be conducive to transcendental/religious experiences. Dr. Lilly would later find that using LSD in in isolation tanks was an extremely powerful combination. Lilly would later work with Huxley, Alpert and others in this area which was in-effect early neurotheology.

Though it is generally agreed that Huxley was the first to use the word “neurotheology”, it is my own argument that research with psychedelics, isolation tanks, yoga, meditation, prayer, etc. was the beginning of neurotheology despite the inconsequential fact that seemingly no one was using the term outside of Huxely’s fictional Island. [Huxley, 1962]

Beside what has thus far been mentioned, there have been other works here and there viewing the religious experience in a scientific manner. We will turn to some of these in following chapters.


1. Watts wrote “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear.”

But it is important to note that he also wrote that the “psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.
Furthermore, speaking quite strictly, mystical insight is no more in the chemical itself than biological knowledge is in the microscope.There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these three drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge. As an escape, an isolated and dissociated ecstasy, they may have the same sort of value as a rest cure or a good entertainment. But this is like using a giant computer to play tick-tack-toe, and the hours of heightened perception are wasted unless occupied with sustained reflection or meditation upon whatever themes may be suggested.”

2. “The hallucinogenic mushrooms are a natural product presumably accessible to men in many parts of the world, including Europe and Asia. In man’s evolutionary past, as he groped his way out from his lowly past, there must have come a moment in time when he discovered the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms. Their effect on him, as I see it, could only have been profound, a detonator to new ideas. For the mushrooms revealed to him worlds beyond the horizons known to him, in space and time, even worlds on a different plane of being, a heaven and perhaps a hell. For the credulous primitive mind, the mushrooms must have reinforced mightily the idea of the miraculous. Many emotions are shared by men with the animal kingdom, but awe and reverence and the fear of God are peculiar to men. When we bear in mind the beatific sense of awe and ecstasy and caritas engendered by the divine mushrooms, one is emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted in primitive man the very idea of god.” – Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957

3. “…the experiment’s fascinating and provocative conclusions strongly support the hypothesis that psychedelic drugs can help facilitate mystical experiences when used by religiously inclined people in a religious setting. The original experiment also supports the hypothesis that those psilocybin subjects who experienced a full or a partial mystical experience would, after six months, report a substantial amount of positive, and virtually no negative, persisting changes in attitude and behavior. This long-term follow-up, conducted twenty-four to twenty seven years after the original experiment, provides further support to the findings of the original experiment. All psilocybin subjects participating in the long-term follow-up, but none of the controls, still considered their original experience to have had genuinely mystical elements and to have made a uniquely valuable contribution to their spiritual lives. The positive changes described by the psilocybin subjects at six months, which in some cases involved basic vocational and value choices and spiritual understandings, had persisted over time and in some cases had deepened…The long-term follow-up interviews cast considerable doubt on the assertion that mystical experiences catalyzed by drugs are in any way inferior to non-drug mystical experiences in both their immediate content and long-term positive effects…” – Doblin, Rick (1991). “Pahnke’s “Good Friday Experiment”: A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique”, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology Vol. 23, No. 1


Alpert, Leary and Metzner (1964). The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead;

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Crowley, Aleister (1909) “The Herb Dangerous (Part II): The Psychology of Hashish” (written under the pen name Oliver Haddo), The Equinox Vol. 1 No. 2, Fall 1909, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd.

Dass, Ram (1971). Be Here Now,

Dass, Ram (1977). Grist for the Mill (with Steven Levine)

Dass, Ram (1974) The Only Dance There Is

Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World

Huxley, Aldous (1954) The Doors of Perception

Huxley, Aldous (1962) Island

James, William (1902). The Varieties of the Religious Experience

Lattin, Don (2010). The Harvard Psychedelic Club

Leary, Timothy (1968). The Politics of Ecstasy

Leary, Timothy (1968). High Priest

Leary, Timothy (1973) Neurologic (with Joanna Leary)

Leary, Timothy (1977). Exo-Psychology: A Manual on The Use of the Nervous System According to the Instructions of the Manufacturers

Lewin, Louis. (1874). “Über Morphium-Intoxication” (“On Morphium Intoxication”) in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Praktische Medizin;

Lewin, Louis. (1894). “Über Anhalonium Lewinii und andere Cacteen” (“On Anhalonium lewenii and other cacti”) in Archiv für Experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmakologie;

Lewin, Louis. (1931) Phantastica

Smith, Huston. (2000). Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. Tarcher/Putnam, ISBN 1-58542-03404, Council on Spiritual Practices, ISBN 1-889725-03-X

Wasson. R. Gordon. (1957) “Seeking the Magic Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico’s mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions”, LIFE Magazine, June 10th, 1957

Wasson, R. Gordon. (1968). Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality,

Wasson, R. Gordon, et al. (1978). The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck. (1986). Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion

White, Timothy (1998). “Understanding Psychedelic Mysticism: An Interview with Huston Smith”. Shaman’s Drum: A Journal of Experiential Shamanism Number 49, Summer 1998

(This is the first chapter in a treatise. Each chapter will be released separately)

What is Neurotheology?

The term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in recent years scientific research papers1 as well as in popular media including books, magazines, and web sites. The word “neurotheology” combines the words “neurology” and “theology”. Neurology is the science of the brain. Theology is the study of religion and the views that religions espouse. Though there is no official definition for the word, for the purpose of this essay, we will define “neurotheology” as the study of neurological correlations 2 with spiritual, religious or other metaphysical experiences. In other words, “neurotheology” is the study of what happens in the brain when we have transcendental experiences.3

Keep in mind that it is not assumed that the experience is caused by brain activity. Though there are those who say that the brain causes the experience and those who say that something of a spiritual nature causes the brain activity, it is generally said that transcendental experiences correlate with brain activity, that is that the brain activity and the experience coincide.

The single word “transcendental is meant to convey a host of terms including; spiritual experiences, religious experiences, “higher” states of consciousness, the death experience or near death experience (NDE), apparent encounters with non-physical beings such as “spirits”, “deities”, non-physical and/or inter-dimensional aliens, out of body experiences (OBEs), and astral travel.4

In this paper, the use of such terms as “spirits” or “out of body experiences” does not suggest that there is an objective reality behind the experience. Rather, these terms are meant to indicate subjective experiences as such. When we say that someone had an out of body experience we are not suggesting that they “really” left their body; we are saying that their experience was that of leaving the body.

Some would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of the neurological basis or cause of these experiences while others would prefer to say that “neurotheology” is the study of what occurs in the brain as a result of these experiences. In other words, some prefer to think that these experiences are only physiological events in the brain and others prefer to think that what occurs in the brain is a result of a spiritual event. Again, for the sake of science, it is better to use more neutral and objective terms such as “correlate” and “coincide” because it does not speculate beyond the facts. It is far too early to argue that one is the cause of the other. In the future we may be able to say that one causes the other. But we may never be able to say that one causes the other. As in quantum physics, we may need to think beyond the “either/or” categorization.

Though the term “neurotheology” has been increasingly used in both scientific and popular media, much of what may considered to be part of “neurotheology” does not actually use the term and thus

may evade the notice of writers such as myself. We may see others use the word “neurotheology” invalidly, whether by mistake or to further some agenda. The word “neurotheology” is not official or established like geology, spectrometry, or geometry. The field, if we can call it that, is relatively new and undefined. In this article, I include research that deals with the relationship between neurology and transcendental experiences whether or not the term “neurotheology” is used.

Also, in this work, “neurotheology” often appears in quotes to remind the reader that it is not an established term in science and academia like such terms as neurology or pharmacology. Even Andrew Newberg, M.D. who, as we will see, arguably has done the most to establish “neurotheology” as an actual science has stated, “I have never been comfortable with the term, ‘neurotheology.’ This is, of course, a great problem for someone who is frequently engaged in the field of neurotheology. There are a variety of reasons for my trepidation. However, my greatest concern has always been the lack of clarity about what neurotheology is and what it should try to do as a field.” [Newberg, 2010] To be fair, Dr. Newberg has done tremendous work towards establishing neurotheology as a science.




1. A scientific research paper is a formal description of a scientific study. These are often printed in scientific journals to report new research and are for other scientists and not the general public. These are peer reviewed. In other words, qualified persons who were not involved in the study or the writing of the research paper and decide if it meets the demands of the scientific method and the standards of the journal in question. To meet the standards of the scientific method, the paper must contain enough details for an other researcher to repeat the experiment so that it may be verified or refuted conclusively. These papers are in effect part of the scientific record which began with the first scientific journal in 1665 Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in English and Journal des sçavans in French.

Scientific papers are often prefaced with a summary of the paper which is called an abstract. Often these abstracts are available for free whereas the full paper may need to be purchased separately or the full journal issue must be purchased.

In the notes to this article, I have disclosed when only the abstract (and not the full research paper) was available as a reference in writing this article.

2. correlation – 1. a mutual relationship or connection between two or more things 2. the process of establishing a relationship or connection between two or more measures. Oxford Dictionary Online 

3. I have no rigid definition of “transcendental”. I use the word for the sake of brevity and simplicity; to avoid having to write “spiritual/religious/paranormal/hyper-dimensional/near death/out of body” and so-on. But a rough approximation of what I mean by the “transcendent” is that which seems to be beyond the physical – the metaphysical. I would like to emphasize that what may seem to be beyond the physical may turn out to be physical. Therefore, my definition of the transcendent is malleable. If we shine a light into the darkness, that which is lit is no longer darkness, but there would still be darkness beyond that which is lit.

Author Marcus Boon writes “By ‘transcendental,’ I mean that which goes beyond materiality, and materialist explanations – that which has traditionally, but by no means exclusively, been the concerns of religion and spirituality.” Furthermore, Boon writes that scientific and cultural study “without this transcendental impulse is merely another part of the modernist materialist mythology, which places a boundary around nature and culture, and then situates the transcendental outside of it, as though that would be the end of it. If that really were the end of it, there would be no feeling of being trapped, no feeling of emptiness, no craving for an outside…What interests me is to affirm an inclusive, polyvalent movement around the boundaries that modernity has built for itself that would integrate transcendental experiences within the realm of the possible.” [Boon, 2002]

The philosopher Emmanuel Kant defined the transcendent as being beyond possible experience. But this effectively renders it meaningless. All we know is experience. What is beyond experience may or may not exist. If we have no experience of something we can not say it exists, let alone define it. Therefor, I assert that we can have transcendent experiences; that is experiences of what seems to be beyond the physical. Not only does this seem like common sense, but it seems to stand up to scrutiny as well.

4. “The role the human brain plays in any experience cannot be assessed without recourse to the human neurosciences…Hence, neuroscience, specifically, studies of the live human brain, may have something important to contribute to the non-neuroscientific literature on the topic of religious experience. The question of interest from a neuroscientific perspective is” ‘What is going on in the brain when a person reports having a religious experience?’” [Azari, 2006]



Azari, Nina P. (2006). Neuroimaging studies of Religious Experience: A Critical Review in Patrick, Ed. Where God and science Meet – How Brain and Evolutionary studies Alter our Understanding of Religion 2006, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT

Boon, Marcus. (2002). The Road of Excess: A History of Writing on Drugs

Newberg, Andrew. (2010). Principles of Neurotheology

Book Reviews

Here are some of my book reviews published at Erowid

Entheogens and the Future of Religion
 by Robert Forte (Ed.)
Publisher: Council on Spiritual Practices
Year: 1997
ISBN: 1-889725-04-8

Entheogens and the Future of Religion was published by The Council of Spiritual Practices, an organization that describes itself as “a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making the direct experience of the sacred more available to more people” (see It is an excellent book for those interested in the social, political, ethical, spiritual and historical aspects of the religious use of entheogens. Edited by Robert Forte, this collection includes essays, interviews and transcripts of speaking engagements from various authors with differing areas of expertise approaches the topic of the religious use of entheogens.

“Testimony of the Council of Spiritual Practices” is a version of a talk given by Robert Jesse, founder of CSP, at the Committee of Drugs and the Law of the Association of the Bar in New York City. Jesse speaks in defense of the religious liberty to use entheogens as part of a sincere spiritual practice. He explores the legal issues and ramifications involved in legally treating entheogens and their religious use very differently than the recreational use (and abuse) of hard drugs. Jesse offers reasonable alternatives to total prohibition, and discusses what might entail legal accommodation of safe, sincere employment of entheogens as part of a religious practice.

“Explorations Into God” is a talk by the Benedictine monk and author Brother David Steindl-Rast, who received permission from the Vatican in 1967 to start a formal Christian-Buddhist dialogue with Zen teachers. Speaking at the Esalen Institute in 1984, Steindl-Rast barely mentions entheogens directly. But by refraining from making any distinction between particular spiritual practices, he validates the sincere use of entheogens in a spiritual life. For Steindl-Rast, a continuously vital religious spirit is important, rather than fixed religious dogmas. He points out that, used with honesty and the right intention, entheogens can be used to enrich a religious life, but this is ultimately beside his point. Steindl-Rast’s essay is perhaps the most joyous and sincere chapter in this book.

Dale Pendell is a software engineer, long-time student of ethnobotany and an important poet and author in entheogenic culture. In “Das Mutterkorn: The Making of DeLysid”, Pendell waxes poetic about a variety of key moments in psychoactive history: Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries, and R. Gordon Wasson’s rediscovery of the use of sacred mushrooms in the mountains of Mexico. In addition, Pendell includes what seems to be fragments of a technical process of manufacturing lysergic acid. Pendell swiftly jumps from one topic to another and back again, cross-weaving a thread to make a tapestry, deftly using poetic license to combine chemistry, history, and religion.

In “The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for Today’s World,” Dr. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented LSD, explores the most famous mystery tradition of the ancient world. For nearly a thousand years, seekers accepted at the temple in Eleusis were led through a sort of dramatic guided tour through the death and rebirth myth of Persephone. History tells us that, although the details of these rites were kept secret, whatever took place profoundly changed those who went through it. Many of the most influential figures of the classical Mediterranean world found themselves transformed by their experiences, which may have turn led to ideas that went on to change Western civilization. History also tells us that a sacred drink called kykeon was served during the rites. This brew raises the central question in this chapter. “Could the visions of Eleusis have been produced solely by unknown rites,” Hofmann asks, “or was the kykeon a psychopharmakon, a plant extract capable of inducing an ecstatic state?”

Broadening his topic, Hofmann voices the central issue of Entheogens and the Future of Religion when he asks “whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use consciousness-altering drugs under specific circumstances to gain new insights into the spiritual world.” Hofmann goes on to argue that the use of kykeon in the context of the Eleusinian rites, as well as the ritual use of the LSD-like ololiuqui by certain indigenous peoples of Mexico, can serve as models for the beneficial use of entheogens in a religious context today. “Eleusis can be a model for today,” Hofmann writes. “Eleusis-like centers could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which have the same goal: the goal of creating, by transforming consciousness in individual people, the conditions for a better world, a world without war and without environmental damage, a world of happy people.”

That is some fine writing for a chemist! One more important passage cannot go unquoted. “In conclusion,” Hofmann says, “I wish once more to raise the fundamental question: why were such drugs probably used in Eleusis, and why are they still used by certain Indian tribes even today in the course of religious ceremonies? And why is such use scarcely conceivable in the Christian liturgy, as though it were not significant? The answer is that Christian liturgy worships a godly power enthroned in heaven, that is a power outside of the individual. At Eleusis, on the contrary, an alteration in the inmost being of the individual was striven for, a visionary experience of the ground of being…”

In another case of chemists producing eloquent writing, Ann Shulgin and Alexander Shulgin, the authors of the classic books PIHKAL and TIHKAL, take on the topic of “A New Vocabulary.” In this abridged version of a chapter in TIHKAL, the couple explore the idea that the various experiences made available by psychoactive substances can be seen as a vocabulary of human experience and human potential–a vocabulary which can bring to light unexamined subconscious drives that affect our lives from the level of the individual to the level of world politics. “What we are doing is looking,” the Shulgins say, “as have countless others before us, for a way to communicate the experiences of the deeper parts of ourselves, a way to share knowledge which has traditionally been called ‘occult,’ or ‘hidden,’ and which has been, until our time, considered the private preserve of those few shamans, teachers, or spiritual guides in each culture who had earned their way to it.” In our world of increasingly destructive weaponry and increasingly invasive technologies of control, the Shulgins argue that it is imperative that our leaders gain the more enlightened perspectives afforded by psychoactives and act accordingly.

Terence McKenna suggests a similar idea in “Psychedelic Society,” based on a talk McKenna gave at the ARUPA meeting at the Esalen Institute in 1984. “When I think of psychedelic society that notion implies creating a society which lives in light of the Mystery of Being.” Rather than directly address the topic of the use of entheogens in a religious context, McKenna focuses on the direct experience of the great mystery of life, without dogma or premature reductive interpretations. He goes on to present his vision of such a society, including his “archaic revival” scenarios in which high technology is used not to alienate us but to serve the unfolding of human potential in self-directed evolution in the light of the Mystery. McKenna concludes his talk by saying that because our society has long ago abandoned the use of psychedelic plants (McKenna does not prefer the word entheogen), we have gone very far down the road of dysfunction and destruction as a result. He argues that it is imperative that we integrate psychedelics back into society if we are to save ourselves from ourselves.

R. Gordon Wasson played a very important role in the history of the rediscovery of entheogens (a word he much preferred over the word psychedelic). Wasson was a banker and vice president of J.P. Morgan Trust before becoming interested in entheogens and writing some of the finest books ever made on the subject. Although not the first modern westerner to rediscover psilocybian mushrooms and their use by the indigenous people of Mexico, Wasson was responsible for bringing this story to the attention of the public through the 1957 LIFE magazine account of his travels to Mexico in search of the elusive teonanacatl. In the interview included here, conducted by Robert Forte in 1985, Wasson discusses his role in the rediscovery of entheogens for the western world. This chapter may be somewhat tedious to readers not already familiar with Wasson’s work and who do not hunger for the further details.

In his essay “Sacred Mushroom Pentecost,” Thomas J. Riedlinger makes a comparison between the Christian Pentecostal movement and the sacred mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatecs curanderos and curanderas of Mexico – the same people whom Wasson encountered. According to Riedlinger, both of these practices favor an ever-revitalized experience of the divine over dogma and doctrine. In both practices, the intent is to allow the divine to move through the worshipper, stirring their hearts and tongues, even speaking through them. Both traditions also share an element that can be called “divine wind” or the “breath of god,” a force that refreshes the soul. As with David Steindl-Rast’s chapter, Riedlinger implies that, whether or not entheogens are used, the important thing is the vitality and sincerity of a religious practice.

In “Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice: A Buddhist Perspective,” Forte also interviews Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher and author who trained in monasteries in India, Burma and Thailand and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society. As with his interview with Wasson, Forte displays deep knowledge and insight in his questions. Unfortunately, there is scant mention of entheogens in official Buddhist doctrine. So Kornfield elaborates with his own thoughts, and though he seems a bit prudish in his attitude toward entheogens, he does present a very reasonable stance, reminding us of the Buddhist precept that invites us to “refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness.” Most sincere entheogen users would probably agree: the point is to increase awareness, not to escape from reality, but to open up to a much deeper, wider reality. In this sense, there is no conflict between Buddhism and the use of entheogens with the right intent and practice. “It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit.” Kornfield says. Ultimately, “it is left up to the individual, as are all the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.”

In “Academic and Religious Freedom in the Study of the Mind,” the educational psychologist Thomas B. Roberts describes some of the “ideas, experiences, groups and values” that are the victims of current drug law policies. These include cognitive sciences, multi-state psychology, religion, mystical experiences, and personal freedom. Because drug law decisions affect constituencies from these areas, these groups should have a right to offer significant input into the reformation of these policies. Instead, most of the commentary on current drug policies comes form a narrow range of selected professional constituencies, including the legal, political, and medical communities. But these issues are also the responsibility of the academic, religious, and cognitive science communities. “We like to think that American liberty guarantees the right of the people to select their own ideas and ways of thinking; if we are to enjoy this freedom, then psychedelic-based ideas and psychedelic-supported cognitive skills need to be included too.” Indeed.

Proving Roberts’ point, Dr. Rick Strassman offers up the chapter “Biomedical Research With Psychedelics: Current Models and Future Prospects.” Dr. Strassman made history in the field of psychedelic research when, in the 1990s, he became the first person to gain federal approval to perform research with illegal hallucinogens in over two decades. In Strassman’s case, DMT was used in a study at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry, later described in his book DMT: the Spirit Molecule. In this chapter, Strassman discusses the history of scientific research with entheogens, the issues and legal difficulties involved, as well as the mystical, ontological and religious implications of such research.

Eric E. Sterling is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, served as council to the U.S. House of Representatives, and played an important role in the passage of the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. In “Law Enforcement Against Entheogens: Is It Religious Persecution?” Sterling focuses on the effect of drug laws and law enforcement on religious freedom. Important court cases are discussed, as is the lack of discrimination in law enforcement between entheogens and street drugs. “For law enforcement officers engaged in the protection of youth from the harmful effects of ‘drugs,’ it may be very difficult, given their training, to distinguish what appears to be harmful use of street drugs from the responsible use of entheogens in spiritual practices. But it is fundamentally the mission of the law to draw distinctions.”

Following this rich collection of essays and interviews, CSP offers their brief “Statement of Purpose,” a “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” and a section that gives helpful contextual information about each contributor. It should be mentioned that this book is not a “how-to” for the religious use of entheogens, so readers who want ideas about how to incorporate entheogens into spiritual practice will not find much here at all. In addition, this book is not a work of legal instruction. If you want to ascertain whether any given use of an entheogen would be found constitutionally protected in a court of law as a religious practice, Entheogens and the Future of Religions will not help. But for the sorts of readers who appreciated Persephone’s Quest, Cleansing the Doors of Perception and similar books, this CSP volume will satisfy.

Roll Away the Stone: An Introduction to Aleister Crowley’s Essays on the Psychology of Hashish
by Israel Regardie
Publisher: Newcastle
Year: 1994
ISBN: 0878771948

The main body of this book is a series of articles called The Herb Dangerous which originally appeared in the highly acclaimed biannual review The Equinox in four installments from 1909 to1910. The Equinox was subtitled The Review of Scientific Illuminism and its motto – “the method of science, the aim of religion” – sums up its central concern. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley funded and edited The Equinox and wrote many of the works published therein. The Herb Dangerous series is comprised of four distinct works by four different authors. They are collected here under one cover, along with a 65-page introduction by Israel Regardie, who was one of Crowley’s best students and widely considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important occult authors.

The introduction is an excellent read in its own right. It attempts to familiarize the reader with Crowley’s life work insofar as it pertains to his essay “The Psychology of Hashish” (the centerpiece of this book) so that the reader may appreciate both its content and its historical context. Regardie also gives an interesting occult perspective on the subject of psychedelics and mysticism that is not commonly encountered. Speaking of the 1960s, Regardie says that “recent years have evolved a roster of new and eloquent voices to corroborate and confirm many of Crowley’s once outrageous views relative to psychedelic agents: Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – to name but a few… are directing attention to the dramatic fact that there is now a chemical door which gives promise to open to higher and mystical states of consciousness. This is what Crowley, amongst other things, had been trying to state more than a half a century ago.”

With regard to the possible use of hashish and stronger psychedelics in a mystical practice, Regardie’s opinion is essentially the same as Crowley’s: that a sincere aspirant towards enlightenment, who is well grounded, well trained, psychologically balanced and stable, careful, methodical and resolute, may under certain circumstances gain benefit from the use of certain psychoactive substances. Both men found that hashish and similar substances may give the aspirant something of a preview to states of mind that can be achieved if he or she persists in a spiritual discipline. Neither wrote that psychoactive substances could or should be used as a substitute for disciplined mystical practice.

Crowley wrote mainly about hashish but Regardie discusses the use of substances that were discovered after Crowley had died, especially LSD. The principle, however, is the same. Understandably, Regardie takes pains to assert repeatedly that he recommends against the use of psychedelics by all but the most disciplined of students. “Furthermore,” he writes, “and this is far and away the most important consideration here, Crowley was an experimental mystic of the highest magnitude. He had practiced yoga and magical techniques assiduously for many years until he had achieved a thorough-going mastery over both Eastern and Western methods. All of these rare skills were brought to bear on his experimentation with a variety of drugs.”

Regardie quotes extensively from Crowley, Leary, Watts and others in order to make his point, and he makes it quite well. With a perspective not available to Crowley, who was writing over a half-century earlier, Regardie addresses the criticism that altering perception with drugs makes perception invalid. Regardie quotes from Alan Watts who, in the 1950s wrote, “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these… drugs. If they are an affront of the dignity of the mind, then the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and a telephone to the dignity of the ear…”.

Then again, this is but a reiteration of the brilliant analogy Crowley made in the first place. In his Psychology of Hashish he writes, “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.”

The first part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Pharmaceutical Study of Cannabis Sativa (Being a Collection of Facts as Known at the Present Date)” by E. Whineray M.P.S. It is almost a century out of date but some readers may find it of historical interest. This text is followed with Crowley’s key text, “The Psychology of Hashish.” As stated, this largely concerns the relationship between mystical states achieved with psychoactive substances and mystical states achieved without them. Crowley’s essay is particularly relevant now that we are at a point in history where the scientific community has recently overcome the witch-hunt mentality and intimidation that began in the 1960s as a backlash against Leary and the acid counter-culture and that had effectively stopped all research into the area. In the 1960s certain experiments suggested that psychedelics could give one a genuine mystical experience. Huston Smith, considered to be one of – if not the – foremost authority on comparative religion has demonstrated that there is essentially no difference between mystical states achieved through entheogens (psychedelics) and mystical states achieved through meditation or other practices. Newer research into this area seems to be growing. In 2006, a study at Johns Hopkins indicated that psilocybin can not only give one a spiritual experience but that it can also have long-lasting positive effects upon one’s life. This new research merely validates – albeit with more scientific rigor – the Good Friday Experiment conducted way back in 1962. It has taken 44 years for science to pick up where this experiment left off. But almost a century ago, Crowley wrote that, “I can find no essential difference between the experiences induced, under favorable conditions, by these chemicals and the states of ‘cosmic consciousness’ recorded by R. M. Bucke, William James, Evelyn Underhill, Raynor Johnson and other investigators of mysticism…”

It is for this reason that I feel that a full study of the relationship between psychoactives and mystical discipline should start with – or at least include – Crowley’s “The Psychology of Hashish.” Crowley writes that, with the judicious application of hashish, “I could persuade other people that mysticism was not all folly without insisting on their devoting a lifetime to studying under me; and if only I could convince a few competent observers – in such a matter I distrust even myself – Science would be bound to follow and to investigate, clear up the matter once and for all, and, as I believed, and believe, armed with a new weapon ten thousand times more potent than the balance and the microscope.”

In his essay, Crowley not only claims that hashish may be helpful to some students at the beginning of their mystical training, but also during certain dry spells they may encounter later on. After considerable progress there often comes a period where things seem to slow to a halt. The feeling of enthusiasm dissipates. One feels that the entire thing is pointless and falls into a depressed state. At this point most people give up. Crowley knew that this is the crucial point of darkness before the dawn. In such a case, he found, some people can benefit from a judicious dose of hashish. Due to their hard-earned discipline and training, their experience with hashish would almost certainly be a profoundly mystical one. The aspirant is assured that there is indeed incredible potential in their quest. The hashish experience breathes new life into the fire, and the aspirant is impassioned to press on.

Overall Crowley makes an argument and a plea for science to look into the psychology of meditative states and the methodical cultivation of mystical states through a variety of approaches, including the use of hashish. It would take half a century before such research was conducted at Harvard. This research of course resulted in mass hysteria, and it would be another half century before scientists were able to revisit the study.

Now, then, for some criticism. Whereas Regardie’s section is quite clear, Crowley’s section may try the patience of today’s readers. Like much that was written at that time, Crowley’s essay seems to wander whilst encumbered by fanciful language. If Regardie is straight-forward than Crowley spirals about, though with intention. Both writers make the same points and arrive at the same destination. It is just that Crowley dances to and fro and twirls along the way. He also makes use of a lot of tongue-in-cheek wit that may be missed by some readers.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Crowley’s essay is the use of many terms of eastern mysticism. Words like samadhi, nibbana, and vedana are used with little or no explanation. Unfortunately, Regardie’s introduction is not sufficient to clarify Crowley’s essay in this regard. Therefore, I would highly recommend that one read the section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4 as it is the most concise, complete and straight forward treatise on meditation I have yet encountered and would certainly provide the necessary background knowledge for the terms used in “The Psychology of Hashish.”

The third part of The Herb Dangerous is Charles Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish,” translated from the French by Crowley. This is not a poem at all but rather a treatise on the effects of hashish. This work is historically important, as it is one of the earliest pieces of non-medical literature on cannabis intoxication by an important writer. However, in my opinion, it is not very well written. To his credit, Baudelaire stresses the importance of set and setting and makes some interesting observations about the interpersonal relations between people who are on hashish and the relations between those on hashish and those who are not. Here it seems Baudelaire is drawing upon his sober observations of his associates in the seminal Hashish Club of Paris in the mid-1800s.

Overall I found the essay to be excruciatingly boring and largely incomprehensible due to its pretentiously superfluous style. I also found it to be bigoted towards women and the working class; women, according to Baudelaire, are unable to truly analyze their minds and the working class are unable to think beyond their mud, cattle, shovels and whatnot. Most tiresome of all is the fact that Baudelaire is ultimately against pleasure. To sum up his position, hashish can allow one to experience heavenly states of mind with ease and without years of toil and struggle; therefore it must be bad. I concede that there is some merit to his assertion that hashish compromises one’s will. But there seems to be no rational basis to his aversion to pleasure. It is interesting that Crowley included this treatise in The Herb Dangerous because – unlike Baudelaire – Crowley had consciously overcome the irrational aversion to pleasure and would certainly disagree with Baudelaire’s verdict.

The fourth part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Few Extracts from H. G. [sic] Ludlow, The Hashish [sic] Eater which bear upon the peculiar characteristics of the drug’s action”. This work may be somewhat archaic in style to the modern reader. It is certainly flowery and romantic. The excerpts are descriptive of the effects of hashish as Ludlow experienced them. Speaking for myself, it seems that (F. H.) Ludlow greatly exaggerated his experiences so as to make The Hasheesh Eater more interesting to readers, though I could be wrong. Often it seems like he is describing the effects of heroic doses of strong hallucinogens rather than hashish. Whatever the case I found this section of the book a delight to read though my eyebrow was often raised in bemused suspicion.

Though I found Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater interesting, the really important texts here are Regardie’s introduction and Crowley’s essay. Although I would think that readers interested in historical works of literature concerning psychoactives would enjoy this book, its real value lies in its profound insight into the relationship between the states of mind that the mystically inclined may experience with psychedelics and the states of mind induced through spiritual, occult, meditative and mystical disciplines.

At the beginning of the 21st century the new field of neurotheology – the study of the relationship between the human brain and religious or mystical experiences – is just getting underway. With Crowley’s Psychology of Hashish we see him anticipating this field without technology but with personal experience, careful note-taking, and intelligent reflection.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the relationship between psychoactives and the mystical or religious experience as long as they read, understand and appreciate the aforementioned section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4. Even then, I recommend it only for Regardie’s and Crowley’s sections. Unfortunately, however, one would really be paying for Regardie’s introduction alone because the remainder of this book is easy enough to find on the net (here). I do not recommend it to readers who are interested in the writings of Baudelaire and Ludlow. One can find other and better books devoted to their writings and, as mentioned, these sections are readily available on the net. Furthermore, in this book one will find only excerpts of Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, whereas the entirety can be found on the net.


As a postscript to my own review, I offer the following illuminating perspectives on the basic argument of Crowley’s The Psychology of Hashish from Ram Dass, AKA Richard Alpert which I think Israel Regardie would agree with.

In Be Here Now (Lama Foundation, 1971) Ram Dass tells of how in India, soon after arriving at his soon-to-be guru’s ashram he thought to himself that he should give the guru a small dose of LSD because, he reasoned, the man could explain what LSD was from a spiritual perspective. The next morning, the guru – through a translator – asked Ram Dass to ask his question. Ram Dass did not understand and so finally the guru simply asked for the LSD. Ram Dass tried to give him a single dose but the guru kept asking for more until he ingested 915 micrograms of specially prepared “very pure” White Lightning LSD;
“All day long I’m there, and every now and then he twinkles at me and nothing – nothing happens! That was his answer to my question. Now you have the data I have.”

Then in The Only Dance There Is [Anchor 1974] Ram Dass writes further about his guru Maharaji and his experience and thoughts on LSD;
“Then later when questioned about LSD by some of the young Westerners that were with him, he said, ‘If you’re in a cool place and you’re quiet and you’re feeling much peace and your mind is turned toward God, it’s useful.’ He said that it will allow you to come in and have a visit – the darshan – of a saint, of a higher being of a higher space – higher consciousness is how you can translate it. But he says you can’t stay there – after a couple of hours you gotta come back. He said, you know, it would much better to become a saint, rather to go and have this visit; but having this visit is nice. He said it strengthens your faith in the possibility that such things exist.”

Finally, in Grist for the Mill (Unity Press, 1977) Ram Dass offers us further insight;

“In 1970, when I was in India athe next time, he said, ‘Ram Dass, did you give me some medicine the last time you were in India?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Did I take it, he said with a little twinkle in his eye. I said, ‘Well, I think so.’ He said, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, Maharaj-ji.’ and he said, ‘Do you have any more of that?’ So I brought out what I had left and he took twelve hundred micrograms this time. He took each tablet and struck it in his mouth and made sure that I saw, and he munched them up. Then he said, ‘Can I have water?’ I said ‘Yes, ‘ and he asked ‘Will the medicine make me insane?’ So I said, ‘Probably.’ So he said, ‘How long will it take?’ I said, ‘An hour at the most.’ So he got an old man up with a watch and he was holding it and looking at it. And he drank a lot of water and about half way through, he started looking really weird, he even went under his blanket, and he came up looking totally insane. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought, ‘what have I done to this sweet old man? He probably threw it over his shoulder last time, and he wanted to show what a big man he was.’ At the end of an hour, he looked at me and he said, ‘You got anything stronger?’ Because nothing had happened, obviously. Then he said, ‘These were in the kulu valley long ago, but most yogis had forgotten them.’ On later questioning, he said, ‘Well it could useful, in a cool place, where you are feeling much peace, and your mind is much turned toward God, and when you’re alone.’ He said that it would allow you to come in and pranam or bow to Christ, but you could only stay for two hours, and then you would have to leave again. He said, ‘You know, it would have to leave again. He said, ‘You know, it would be much better to become Christ than to just visit him. But your medicine won’t do that, because it’s a false samadhi’ – which was exactly what Meher Baba said to me. ‘Though,’ he said, ‘it’s useful to visit a saint; it strengthens your faith.’ Then he added, ‘But love is a stronger medicine.’…

…In order to be open to this merging, many of you that have smoked dope or taken acid, or had other vehicles for overriding your programs, know that you can set aside your programs, know that you can set aside your program for a moment and enter into the higher channels, but after a while, you come down as a result get very frustrated. And what brings you down is your attachment to the models or molds or programs about who you think you are, and how you think the world is – these habits of mind.

Many of us are getting to the point in our spiritual journey where we are no longer trying to get high, for we know how to do that, we are trying to be. And being includes everything. We now recognize that if there is anything at all that can bring us down – anything – our house is built upon sand, and there is fear. And where there is fear, you aren’t free. Thus you have become motivated to confront the places in yourself that you bring you down; not only to confront them, but to create situations in which to bring them forth. That’s quite a flip-around from a mentality that says, ‘I just want to get high.’ That’s the mentality that says, ‘I just want to get done; I want to be liberated in this very birth. I’ve seen how it could be; I’m tired of just seeing previews of coming attractions; I want to become the main feature.’

The theme is the same with Crowley, Alan Watts, Ram Dass and others; psychedelics under optimal conditions can give one a preview of mental states that are achievable through spiritual and mystical practice.

The Cosmic Serpent: DNA & the Origins of Knowledge
 by Jeremy Narby
Publisher: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam
Year: 1998
ISBN: 0-87477-911-1

The Cosmic Serpent is doubly themed. One theme is that of the symbol of the creator serpent (or twin serpents) as the source of knowledge and of all life itself. The other theme is that of DNA which in our modern western world-view is the source of all life and all organic information. These two threads are wound about in a spiraling narrative like the double helix of the DNA molecule or the twin serpents found in the timeless myths of cultures the world over.

The myths involving the serpent or twin serpents as the source of life and knowledge emerge from the ancient past with their tails hidden in the mists of prehistory. At the head of modern knowledge we have molecular biology and genetics; the study of that most serpentine of molecules – DNA. Like the Ouroboros, the cosmic snake of time and eternity that encircles the world swallowing its tail in a symbol of both unity and infinity, this book is an attempt to merge this cutting edge of scientific knowledge with the ancient source of wisdom steeped deeply in the shadows of our past.

The author, Jeremy Narby, holds a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University. In 1985 he began his fieldwork of two years in the Peruvian Amazon to earn his doctorate in anthropology. He wanted to show the Western world that the indigenous people of the Amazon basin knew best how to use their own land because international “development” agencies typically assert that indigenous people do not know how to use their own land “rationally” and use this rationalization to justify the “confiscation” (theft) of these people’s lands to use and exploit for their own greed and in the process destroy crucial ecosystems forever. Narby’s agenda was to establish protection of the territories of these Amazonian people by demonstrating that only they know how to best use their own land because they had intimate, sophisticated and pragmatic knowledge of their land. To appeal to Western civilization for support of his efforts, Narby had to emphasize the practical nature of these people’s knowledge of their land.

However, it was inevitable that in the course of his study with these people Narby would come up against the enigma of ayahuasca, the plant-based entheogenic brew par excellence of the Western Amazon rain forest. Commonly, the various ayahuasca using people of the Amazon tell us that they gain their knowledge of the many properties and uses of their local plants by consulting ayahuasca. In the visionary state induced by this brew, they are told many practical things; which plants to combine and use as a tranquilizer in which to dip their hunting darts, which plants to use to cure a given disease and how to use them, what plant to use to treat poisonous snake bites and so on. Narby felt that he had to avoid mentioning the fundamentally irrational origins of these people’s pragmatic knowledge because it would undermine his basic assertion that these people were perfectly rational and practical people.

As Narby points out, these people are very practical. But from our modern materialist perspectives, the source of their pharmacological knowledge is not at all rational because this knowledge is derived from what we would call hallucinations.

The modern Western view would deny that hallucinations could provide reliable and practical information, but if the knowledge these people gain from ayahuasca is merely delusional then how is it that this knowledge is so practical? Why does it work? If pharmaceutical companies make millions from the pharmacological knowledge gained from these people can we really dismiss their botanical knowledge as irrational or superstitious? Yet lawmakers in Europe and the United States assure us that ayahuasca is a dangerous drug with no medical or spiritual value.

While conducting his fieldwork, Narby stayed with the Ashaninca and Quirishari people of the Peruvian Amazon. When he questioned them about how they learned all they knew about their local plants they would tell him that they learned what they knew from ayahuasca. Of course, Narby could not believe that a hallucinogen could impart real knowledge.

In the book Narby says, “After about a year in Quirishari, I had come to see that my hosts’ practical sense was much more reliable in their environment than my academically informed understanding of reality. Their empirical knowledge was undeniable. However, their explanations concerning the origins of their knowledge was unbelievable to me.”

One day while inquiring about these matters he was told that if he wanted to know the true answers to his questions he would simply have to take ayahuasca with them and see for himself. Narby accepted this offer and had a life changing experience. After drinking ayahuasca, Narby had a profound life changing experience. His view on himself and reality shifted from an intellectually superior know-it-all to a mere human being that has no real understanding of reality at all. In his experience, these thoughts were telepathically imparted to him by two giant snakes. There was more to his ayahuasca experience, but these are the elements that had the important impact on him.

In 1986 Narby returned to civilization to write his dissertation and two years later he became a doctor of anthropology. Following this he traveled around the Amazon working with indigenous organizations to earn them official governmental recognition of their territories. To these ends he also did fund-raising work in Europe. To appeal to benefactors Narby emphasized the practical knowledge of these Amazonian people, deliberately omitting the enigma of ayahuasca.

After some years of this kind of work, Narby set back to reflect upon and write about the mystery of ayahuasca. Much of this book is the story of how we came to write the book; a sort of boot-strapping process. Months of research and note-taking led Narby to many different topics including shamanism, ethnopharmacology, serpent myths, DNA, quantum physics and more.

As anyone who studies mythology, mysticism and occult traditions knows, the symbol of the serpent of the twin serpents as the creator of life is astoundingly ever-present as is what has been called the axis mundi or axis of the world. This latter concept has been symbolized as the world tree, the pillar of the worlds, the ladder connecting the earth to the upper and lower realms and so on. Often we see this central axis of the macrocosm mirrored in the central axis of the microcosm of the self in the form of the twin serpents. Consider the kundalini snakes that spiral up the spine in eastern mysticism or the spiraling snakes of the ancient Greek caduceus that is still used as the symbol of the medical profession. These symbols are found in ancient Egypt, in Sumerian and Babylonian frescos, among Siberian shamans who have never seen real snakes in their lives; consider Quetzalcoatl, the serpent-god of the Aztecs, the rainbow serpent and creator god of Australian aborigines, the Midgard serpent of Nordic myths wound about the world tree, the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge in the Judeo-Christian mythology and so on.

Through chance, synchronicity or some other cause Narby encountered many uncanny connections between this symbol complex and DNA without really knowing what it all meant. Here is the main thrust of Narby’s book, fueled by his own powerful experience with the two serpents he encountered in his ayahuasca experience years earlier.

Narby developed the hypothesis that somehow, through what Eliade called “archaic techniques of ecstasy” shamans receive information from DNA in the form of visions. Indeed, it is almost a universal truism that shamans gain their unique view on things by traveling up and down the axis mundi of the macrocosm or the microcosmic axis of the self.

Through his studies, Narby became engrossed in the molecular biology of DNA and he gives us many correlations between DNA and the shamanic world view. Close minded readers may find these to be mere circumstantial coincidences and gullible readers may find these to be proof that Narby’s hypothesis is correct. These correlations are truly astounding but far from conclusive. Narby does not pretend to have final answers but he definitely forces the reader to take these questions seriously as correlation after correlation pile up. These correlations or coincidences seemingly never end but Narby actually misses a few; that the ancient Chinese system of divination known as the I Ching there are 64 different symbols to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe and that there are 64 different codons or strands in DNA, or that DNA is made from 22 different amino acids and that in the ancient Greco-Egyptian system of the Tarot there are 22 cards in the major arcane sequence to cover the totality of possible phenomena in the universe but I digress or that the final card in this series uses the serpent as a symbol of the macrocosm of the world and eternity.

As many a student of the occult, mysticism and mythology has found, once you start unraveling these uncanny correlations and connections, it just gets deeper and deeper and that the more one looks for answers, the more questions arise without answers. There seems to be no end to this sort of inquiry. Indeed, as exhaustive as Narby seems to be in the exploration of his hypothesis, his book really only scratches the surface of the seemingly endless mystery we encounter in the shamanic realms.

The following passages sum up Narby’s hypothesis and position:

I began my investigation with the enigma of “plant communication.” I went on to accept the idea that hallucinations could be the source of verifiable information. And I ended up with a hypothesis suggesting that a human mind can communicate in defocalized consciousness with the global network of DNA-based life. All this contradicts principles of Western knowledge.

Nevertheless, my hypothesis is testable. A test would consist of seeing whether institutionally respected biologists could find biomolecular information in the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros… My hypothesis suggests that what scientists call DNA corresponds to the animate essences that shamans say communicate with them and animate all life forms. Modern biology, however, is founded on the notion that nature is not animated by an intelligence and therefore cannot communicate. (page 132)

To sum up: My hypothesis is based on the idea that DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. (page 145)

Along the way, we are given a dizzying dose of the mysterious nature of molecular biology. It is easy for the non-biologist to assume that this science is all tedious details of well-understood mechanisms but as Narby shows us, this science is just now tapping into the truly miraculous, bizarre and still fundamentally puzzling inner workings of the core of life.

It can not go unmentioned here that René Descartes became the “founder of modern philosophy” and the “father of modern mathematics” (as he is generally considered) after being inspired by a dream revelation in which an angel came to him and told him that “the conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number” and that this angelic revelation is the basis for the modern scientific method. Also, we should note that Kekulé discovered the benzene ring after dreaming about the Ouroboric serpent in the shape of a circle, swallowing its own tail. The idea that dreams could be a verifiable source of important scientific knowledge seems contradictory to science itself, yet many scientists have gained important knowledge this way. Here’s an even more startling example that brings us closer to the dual theme of Narby’s book; towards the end of his life, Francis Crick, the nobel-prize winning father of modern genetics confided a secret he kept for almost 50 years – that he hit upon the double helix structure of DNA while on LSD (see reference below). With this example of scientific knowledge derived from a hallucinogen, we see the snake swallowing its tail.

The Cosmic Serpent is similar to Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations to the extent that both books give us accounts of Amazon excursions and experiences with plant hallucinogens imparting visions and ideas fecund with profound hypotheses involving the molecular biology of DNA. The Cosmic Serpent is similar to The Invisible Landscape by Terence and Dennis McKenna in that both of these books extrapolate upon such hypotheses in dizzying detail.

It should be noted that The Cosmic Serpent contains little in the way of descriptions of the ayahuasca experience. Readers looking for good trip stories would do better to look elsewhere.

This book is by no means light reading. Though not nearly as dense with complex details and wild extrapolations as the McKenna brother’s The Invisible Landscape, The Cosmic Serpent may contain far too detailed a discussion of molecular biology for many readers, though one certainly does not need a background in biology to understand Narby’s book, only an appreciation for the fascinating mysteries this science is just scratching the surface of.

Also, this book contains many long footnotes that some readers may find distracting or tedious while others may appreciate these details. Personally I found these details interesting but distracting. Many pages had multiple footnotes and sometimes the footnotes for a given page were longer than the page itself.

Overall, however, it is my opinion that this is a fascinating book. It brings up correlations or coincidences, raises questions and suggests ramifications that are too profound and challenging to go unexamined. The intelligent, discerning, but open-minded reader with a passion for the deepest mysteries of life and with an interest in both shamanism and science would be likely to find this book to be both important and amazing.

It is perhaps fitting to close this review with a quote from the book, “All things considered, wisdom requires not only the investigation of many things, but contemplation of the mystery.”

Rees A. “Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life” August 8, 2004 Associated Newspapers Ltd. (London)

The Age of Entheogens & The Angels’ Dictionary
 by Jonathan Ott
Publisher: Natural Products Co.
Year: 1995
ISBN: 0-9614234-7-1

As indicated by the title, what we have here is really two books under one cover. Together they add up to a mere160 pages but as with all of Ott’s books that I have read, it is densely packed with knowledge. The Age of Entheogens is a call to draw us out of the Dark Ages in which we live into a brighter future where people can reconnect with the spirit through the immediate experience of the sacred through the ingestion of entheogens (sacred plants, hallucinogens, psychedelics or what have you). Ott argues that this is what our distant ancestors did before the world tree of knowledge and life was cut down to build the church of artifice, dominion and repression of the sacred.

The basic message is essentially the same as Terence McKenna’s concept the “Archaic Revival.” In the book The Archaic Revival, and in countless lectures, McKenna suggested that in the distant past humanity lived in harmony with Nature, connected with the sacred through the shamanic use of vision plants, and that history has been the story of the repression of these practices and thus the symbolic banishment from Eden. McKenna argued that religion, as an institution, is the flaming sword that bars us from reconnecting with the sacred and that as a society we would do well to reconvene with nature through the use of these sacred plants. In this sense, McKenna’s Archaic Revival accords with the “Entheogenic Reformation” that Ott describes.

But Ott and McKenna present this message is significantly different yet complementary ways. McKenna’s presentation is better suited to wider audiences, and serves as an introduction to this important idea. Ott’s approach, on the other hand, is much more suited for scholarly readers. This includes people who require academic-style citations and references to established and foundational works, and people who have gotten McKenna’s message and want to delve into the sober knowledge that supports it. Whereas skeptics may understandably dismiss McKenna’s Archaic Revival as lacking in supporting evidence, Ott’s Age of Entheogens would likely convince them that the basic idea is at least very plausible and possibly very important. On the other hand, the more general reader interested in entheogens may find Ott’s Age of Entheogens too difficult, too bogged down by notes and details. Personally I find The Archaic Revival and The Age of Entheogens to be complimentary accounts.

The Age of Entheogens opens with Ott’s “Exordium,” a tour de force. Here, in something like a manifesto, Ott shatters the hypocrisy of organized religions, characterized as non-experiential and non-vital, as well as the so-called “war on drugs”. In their place, Ott triumphantly wins back the high ground for that real “old time religion”: the original, organic practice of direct experience of the spirit through entheogens.

In recent history, most orthodox anthropologists have held that, although what is called shamanism is the universal root of all religions, the use of psychoactive plants is a “decadent” form of shamanism compared to those forms that rely on what are classified as ordeals to alter consciousness (i.e. fasting, isolation, prolonged pain, marathon drumming, etc.). But, as Ott points out in his first chapter, Wasson and other scholars have argued that quite the opposite is the case: entheogen-based shamanism is actually the original shamanism, and it is only when no entheogens are available that shamans turn to other, less effective techniques.

In the next chapter, “The Pharmacratic Inquisition”, Ott argues convincingly that the rise of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman empire meant the downfall of Western civilization. All effort was made to eradicate science, independent thought and any practice involving entheogens and the knowledge thereof. Central to this plunge into ignorance was the deliberate substitution of the age-old entheogenic sacrament provided to seekers in the Eleusinian mystery rites – a sacrament that produced an undeniably profound experience – with the Christian Eucharist, which provided no direct experience but which required faith in order to have any meaning at all. As Ott puts it, “the forced imposition of Christianity as state religion in the reign of Constantine, far from being a progressive change, as Christians would have us think, plunged Europe into a millennium of atavism and book burning, of barbarous destruction and desecration of classical art and literature, in which the torch of science and learning, lit in such a promising fashion by the Greek philosophers, was all but extinguished, and during which the hard-won pharmacognistical and other scientific knowledge of the ancients was forgotten, if not lost completely.”

Ott also discusses the centuries of repression and persecution that eradicated any folk knowledge of medicinal and entheogenic plants in Europe. Witch hunts and inquisitions abounded. Grab your torches, Bibles and pitchforks! Onward Christian soldiers! As Ott says, “I suggest that, as far as religion goes, we are still in the Dark Ages, and that the Entheogenic Reformation at last heralds the dawning of the Entheogenic Renaissance, a spiritual Renaissance which hopefully will do for religions what the mediaeval Renaissance did for art and science a half-millennium ago.” This takes us to the next chapter, “The Entheogenic Reformation,” where Ott looks at various entheogen-based forms of spirituality that live on outside of the empire of church and state. Finally, in “Agape: Vac or Logos,” Ott looks forward to a possible future when the Age of Entheogens will dawn. “Christianity and suchlike symbolic, dogmatic religions,” he writes, “will prosper only by forsaking the Pharmacratic Inquisition and embracing the Entheogenic Reformation with open arms.” Indeed.

The second book tucked within this book is descriptively entitled The Angels’ Dictionary: Toward a Vocabulary for Sacred Inebriants, Ecstatic States and Kindred Topics. For anyone who has experienced entheogens or who has studied the traditional use of visionary plants and fungi, such words as “intoxication” and “hallucination” can be dreadfully inadequate. Relying on these terms is rather like trying to describe the colors of the rainbow using only the words “black” and “white.” As R. Gordon Wasson wrote in 1961, a few years after he rediscovered (for the modern Western world) the traditional use of psilocybian mushrooms in Southern Mexico, “What we need is a vocabulary to describe all the modalities of a Divine Inebriant”.

Here we have Ott’s answer to Wasson’s call. The Angels’ Dictionary is a dictionary of terms related to divine inebriants, shamanism, psychonautica and the like. The entheogenic experience of the ineffable is still beyond language, but this dictionary is at least a good start. Indeed, like all of Ott’s books, it is excellent, and deserves a spot on the shelves of all serious students of entheogens, alongside the works of R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, Carl Ruck and other masters in this field.

As this book is out of print, interested readers are urged to acquire a copy before they truly disappear (try or other used-book services online). Despite the fact that Ott’s books are undeniably among the very best texts that deal with entheogens, they all seem to be printed in limited numbers and go out of print. Afterwards, used book sellers tend to charge a good deal of money for Ott’s books because people who know how well he writes are willing to pay for them. Some of his books are being sold for hundreds of dollars but for the time being, one can find this particular book for a reasonable price. I would imagine that this will not last.

Trialogues at the Edge of the West

 by Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna & Rupert Sheldrake
Publisher: Bear & Company
Year: 1992
ISBN: 0-939680-97-1

Have you ever had a friend introduce you to someone because he or she felt that, given your mutually obscure interests, you had a lot to talk about? Have you ever had one of those conversations that inspire more and more thoughts as it goes on and on? This book reads like just such a conversation. Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna and Rupert Sheldrake were introduced to each other through friends that felt they would have a lot to talk about with each other, and indeed they did. As the authors note, “Ever since Plato, dialogues have been recognized as a uniquely effective way of exploring the realm of thought: they are the basis of the dialectical method. But insofar as the dialectic of two points of view can result in a synthesis, it presupposes a third point of view that includes the two starting positions. We have found that trialogues have a more harmonious dynamic than dialogues with only two people, partly because the synthesis implicit in a fruitful dialogue can be made explicit by a third person…” After meeting periodically for some time these three decided to do some stand-up “trialogues” in public. Trialogues at the Edge of the West is an edited transcript of a few conversations conducted at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California over four days in 1982 and three days in 1990. The phrase “the Edge of the West” not only refers to the geographical location of these conversations, but to the peripheral edge of western thought at which these talks take place.

Ralph Abraham has a Ph.D. in mathematics, participated in the creation of a new branch of math called global analysis, and is involved in new theories of nonlinear dynamics, chaos, and bifurcations. He is perhaps an unusual mathematician in that he was turned on to LSD in the 1960s, went on something of a spiritual quest in India and seems well versed in metaphysics, spirituality, creativity and other pursuits that one does not usually associate with math. The well-known Terence McKenna graduated from the University of Berkeley, California and wrote a number of books including Food of the Gods, The Archaic Revival and, along with his brother Dennis, The Invisible Landscape and Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Growers’ Guide. Before his death in 2000, he was well known for his many public speaking engagements addressing the psychedelic experience and related topics. Rupert Sheldrake holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge and has written A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past and The Rebirth of Nature. He is perhaps best known as the man who was effectively ostracized from the British scientific community for work that suggests that there is some non-physical (or at least undetected) medium-which he called the morphogenetic field-that allows information transfer within a given species. This “telepathic” field would explain how animals of a given species are able to learn from each other and form new collective habits beyond natural selection or any known means of communication.

Despite the fact that the authors are all scientifically trained and university educated, they still have a passion for the mysteries of life and they are full of wonder and far-reaching questions. They don’t always agree but they inspire and compliment each other’s wild speculations. Some of the topics they explore include the myth and science of chaos (in both the original mythological sense and in the sense it is used in chaos theory), dark matter as a sort of cosmic unconscious, the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the nature of the nonphysical entities encountered through psychedelics and occult practices. They also take on the emergence of ego supremacy, and the corresponding deepening and darkening of the unconscious, along with morphogenetic fields, and the apocalypse.

Since this is a review for Erowid, it would be appropriate to say how this book pertains to psychedelics, a term Terence McKenna preferred over the term “entheogens.” Overall, most of the subject matter would likely be interesting to many of us who tend to think deeply during and as a result of our entheogen/psychedelic sessions. Let us indulge in one intentionally selected quote here as an example of how the topic of psychedelics are worked into the trialogues, “If you think about the mushroom, it is perfectly engineered for truly long-duration survival and adaptation. Look how lightly it touches matter. Its mycelium is simply a cobweb of the soil of any planet, and yet it synapses upon itself and is full of neurotransmitter-like psychedelic compounds. It’s like a thinking brain, yet it condenses itself down into a thing three microns across, of which several million per minute can be shed by a single carpophore. Spores are perfectly designed to travel in space. They can endure extremes of temperature…This is an example of how an abstract notion like the world soul can penetrate the upper levels of the world of biology and organisms.”

Although the book is good for what it is and it makes no claims to be more than it is, after reading it I still felt a lack of detail and depth. To be fair, three people conversing can not possible provide the depth and detail that a single author can with good reference books and time to research. Also, in defense of the book, I can say that anyone who has even a basic familiarity with the topics they discuss will find this book easy to read. It is not intimidating to casual readers.

It is somewhat refreshing to see scientifically trained and university educated people go off into far-out theories and speculations. But on the flipside, I felt their trialogues would have been better if their were more instances where they touched ground in the “real” world as we experience it: the world of flesh, bone, dirt and stone; the here and now. Although I enjoy their wild abandonment to speculative trains of thought, they could have used more “devil’s advocate” skepticism to balance or at least offset all the fanciful speculation. Finally, there is too much “cosmic Christ” stuff and apocalyptic material for my taste. To be fair, however, both latent monism and paranoia about the end of everything we know are characteristic western aberrations, and this is a book grounded in Western thought.

I think that a good indicator of who may and who may not enjoy this book would be the topics described above. If upon reading over that list you scratch your head and wonder what they mean, this is probably not a good book for you unless you have a desire to find out what they mean. If, upon reading that list, your interest is sparked then you just might like this book, but keep in mind the few criticisms I mentioned above. Fans of Terence McKenna’s work will not find anything new from him in this book. However, it is interesting to see his peculiar ideas bounced off Abraham and Sheldrake.

Ploughing the Clouds — The Search for Irish Soma
 by Peter Lamborn Wilson
Publisher: City Lights Books
Year: 1999
ISBN: 0872863263

From the beginning of the Vedic religion—what we today call Hinduism—a sacred substance called Soma lay at the heart of ritual life. The Ŗg Veda, one of the world’s oldest pieces of sacred literature, contains many verses concerning soma, which was at once the sacrifice and the deity receiving the sacrifice. Soma was also clearly a living, growing, material thing, a substance that could transform the consciousness of the worshipper. But though it seems clear that soma was some entheogenic plant, its actual identity had long been lost in the mists of time. Today Vedic priests use symbolic substitutes that are either non-psychoactive or only mildly psychoactive — the non-psychedelic stimulant ephedra being one common stand-in for soma today.

In the area of Iran, the ancient people of the Zoroastrian religion had their own sacrament called Haoma. It fulfilled the same function as the Vedic soma and its identity too has been lost. For a thousand years, ancient Greece also hosted the Eleusian mystery rites, where seekers underwent a secret but profoundly life-changing experience. A sacramental drink called Kykeon was given at Eleusis, and this drink, along with the guided experience orchestrated by the keepers of the mysteries, would give the seeker a glimpse of the divine. Some of the most influential thinkers of Greek culture were inspired by their experiences at Eleusis. Once again, the materials in the sacrament remain unknown today, though in this case they were deliberately kept secret from the beginning.

Psychedelic researchers like Albert Hofmann, R. Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck have speculated about the identity of soma, hoama, and kykeon, but the jury is still out. One important clue is that all three entheogenic sacramental traditions share a common Indo-European origin. The Indo-Europeans once occupied a wide area of Eurasia. At different times, large groups would depart from the steppes and move into new areas, conquering indigenous people and both subduing and merging with their culture and religions. It seems likely that these Indo-Europeans already used an entheogenic sacrament and brought it with them when they migrated to other parts of the world, or at least replaced their sacrament with other entheogens. It is known that the Indo-Europeans who moved into the Nordic and Siberian areas used Amanita muscaria as their sacrament.

But what of the Celts, the Indo-European tribes who moved into North-Western Europe? Their folktales and myths all suggest the influence of entheogens. We have tales of elves and gnomes; of people being abducted to the land of the faeries; of red berries and other red fruit that seemed to give magical powers or perception; enchanted nuts and potions; and so on. But we have no direct references to identifiable entheogens or hard evidence of entheogen use among the Celts. In fact, although Terence McKenna had made casual suggestions about the possible use of psilocybian mushrooms among the Celts, the question of Celtic entheogen use has never been given serious scholarly consideration.

This is where Peter Lamborn Wilson comes in. Ploughing the Clouds: the Search for Irish Soma is a provocative and necessary look at the possibility that the Celts of the British Isles, particularly those of Ireland, used entheogens. Wilson is a literary genius who possesses both an extensive knowledge of the literature of folklore, myth, and religion—unorthodox Islam being his specialty—and an original, unconventional, and penetrating intellect. His ideas and hypotheses are both reasonable and wild; as an author he displays a thorough knowledge of classic literature but puts forth revolutionary thoughts. His presentation is intelligent, sophisticated and at times his prose swells into poetic reverie. Often it seems that Wilson could elaborate on numerous juicy topics but is forced to merely mention these tangents and move on so as to not overwhelm the reader. Thankfully he does offer leads—bibliographic, branches of philosophy, and so on—for readers to pursue the various subjects he touches upon.

Here Wilson draws upon a variety of disciplines to tease the “Soma” out the Irish Celtic past. Anthropology, mythology, entheogen studies, comparative religion, linguistics and etymology, and other approaches are employed. Wilson’s particular focus in this book is the analysis and comparison of the Vedic literature of India and the folklore, sagas, poetry, and legends of Ireland. For that reason, the reader must have an appetite for Vedic verse, Irish folklore, and the minutiae of etymology in order to enjoy the greater bulk of this book. Some may find Wilson’s hypothesis itself to be more interesting than the actual examination of the evidence. However, to come to any reasonable conclusion the reader will need to patiently follow along with Wilson’s multitude of details because it is in these minutiae where the strength of Wilson’s argument lies. The devil, or at least the drug, is in the details.

Thankfully, Wilson makes no unfounded claims. He doesn’t push his hypothesis by simply declaring that it is true. Rather he presents his theme as a reasonable suspicion, one that may lead to further evidence if experts in various fields should be inspired by his research. It may well be that Wilson’s major motive for writing this book was to stimulate others to look further. When Wilson earlier ran an early article concerning his research in Psychedelic Illuminations #8 (Winter 1995/96), he humbly asked for support, refutation and other feedback. He also indicated that he had specific questions for specialists of different fields. He must have received a good amount of feedback because Ploughing the Clouds gives thanks to a number of researchers, including Allen Ginsberg, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, Gracie and Zarkov, Dale Pendell, and Albert Hofmann.

Wilson considers the sacred function of Soma to be more important than its actual botanical identity. He does, however, consider specific entheogens as candidates for Irish Soma. For the most part, Amanita muscaria seems to be the leader, but psilocybian mushrooms—particularly Psilocybe semilanceata, also known in the region by the suggestive folk name “elf’s cap”—henbane, nightshade and others are considered. Wilson also suggests the possibility that a variety of entheogenic plants and fungus may have served as Soma.

Writing on a more mythopoetic level, Wilson gives us a fascinating perspective on Soma as a tertium quid, a third dimension or reconciliation of a number of dichotomies: between feminine and masculine, between the dreamtime before history and history itself, between tribes of hunter-gatherers and agricultural civilization, between our subconscious animal past and our identity as users of tools and language. Like Terence McKenna, Wilson entertains the possibility that Soma may have been the cause of the evolutionary leap from one side of the dichotomy to the other, inspiring technology, art, and culture. Yet, once humanity moved into this phase, Soma also served as a reconnection to the older strata of our being.

Soma is also considered as the axis mundi, the axis of the worlds. This concept is found in almost every culture in different guises. It is the universal idea that there is a vertical axis – the world tree, the pillar of cosmos, the chakras of the spine, the magic tent-pole of the shaman, etc. – that holds together the many worlds and provides a means by which the shaman can access the underworld of the ancestors or the upper worlds of the gods. This axis mundi is the tertium quid that connects the polarity of sky and earth, or the human world and the world of the gods. In this sense, it is easy to see Soma as this axis mundi. Insightful explorations like these give Wilson’s writings an extra dimension.

Ultimately this marvelous book is about poetry in the deepest sense–poetry as Soma, Soma as poetry. In other words, poetry is to language what Soma is to matter. Language has pulled our abstract minds out of the eternal dreamtime into the literal human consciousness of linear time and history, which both empowers us and limits us. Poetry is language that transcends the limitations of language and induces the unspeakable in the minds of those who grasp the essence of the poem. Soma is matter, a growing thing of mass and weight that is of the earth, yet it can induce the divine in the minds of those that are receptive. The most subtle and transcendent of realms penetrates and permeates the most crude and dense, opening up a way between these opposites so that the receptive person can move about the axis mundi.

No one can deny that entheogenic plants are made of matter. Yet entheogens are potentially the antithesis of matter, because when combined with the nervous system of the seeker, the poet at heart, the two (the entheogen and the mind of the seeker) become a third, they become one, the tertium quid. And this synthesis transcends matter itself in a reconciliation of heaven and earth, an amalgamation of body and soul. If this reviewer understands the essence of Wilson’s message, this is the poetic heart of the book, the spirit that animates his wealth of literal details and astute scholarship.

Subconscious House



~ o O o ~

Fantasy Relief Map



Cup of Babalon

Hasan i Sabbah



Entelechia micrometetrum


Saint Horsenfiepherfurtherson




La Comete

Balancing stones in aesthetically pleasing compositions for primitive satisfaction.

Clarion River, Pennsylvania

Clarion River, Pennsylvania (obviously I digitally doctored this one)

Clarion River, Pennsylvania

Clarion River, Pennsylvania

Clarion River, Pennsylvania

Haines Falls, New York

Haines Falls, New York

Haines Falls, New York

Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon