GREAT MOMENTS IN SCIENCE
Reto U. Schneider is the author of The Mad Science Book. This is one of the experiments described
Reto U. Schneider, The Mad Science Book – The Good Friday service in Easter 1962 was a memorable experience for ten seminarians at the Andover Newton Theological School. Although they could remember hardly anything of the sermon delivered by Pastor Howard Thurman, they could recall a sea of colors, voices from the Beyond, and the feeling that they were melting into the surrounding world. In a word, the students were high.
At the beginning of the 1960s, some daring scientists turned their attention to studying mind-altering substances. This was the period when it was all part and parcel of a lecture on mysticism to ingest magic mushrooms to gain practical insight into the subject, and when a doctoral thesis could entail giving students drugs and observing their behaviour. This is exactly what Walter Pahnke did: this young theologian and doctor from Harvard University was keen to discover whether psychedelic drugs could induce the kind of mystical sensations that only very few people otherwise experience, for example when in a state of religious trance. Users of LSD, psilocybin or mescaline had long claimed that this was the case.
Pahnke turned to Timothy Leary, who a short time before had begun conducting drug experiments at Harvard, and who later became a leading figure in the 1960s counterculture. He proposed an experiment to Leary: test subjects would attend a church service, but half of them would be given mind-expanding drugs in advance. Afterwards, all participants would be required to fill in a questionnaire and be interviewed. Comparing the findings with descriptions of mystical experiences from the realm of religion would demonstrate whether there was a qualitative difference between them.
[Leary] explained to Pahnke that a psychedelic trip was an intensely personal experience and that a person would have to have experienced several himself before he could even contemplate devising such an experiment. However, Pahnke was adamant that he would have to wait until his thesis had been accepted before he indulged. He didn’t want anyone accusing him of partiality: the experiment would only have a chance of succeeding if he hadn’t taken any drugs himself beforehand. . .
On the morning of Good Friday, two hours before the service, 20 students met in the crypt of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. They were encouraged “not try to fight the effects of the drug even if the experience became very unusual or frightening.”. . .
The service lasted two and a half hours. When it had ended, the students were interviewed for the first time. At 5 o’clock, Leary invited everyone to come and eat with him, but ‘the trippers were still too high to do much except shake their heads, saying “Wow!”‘, as he later recalled. . .
In the days following the experiment, and again six months later, the subjects were quizzed about what they had gone through. . . The results were unequivocal: eight of the 10 students who had eaten the magic mushroom experienced at least seven of the impressions and feelings customarily associated with a mystical experience. By contrast, no-one from the control group reached this kind of score. In every category, they lagged far behind the experimental group. . .
Twenty-five years after the experiment, the psychologist Rick Doblin attempted to find the surviving participants. In four years’ of detective work, he succeeded in tracking down 19 of the 20 students. Sixteen of them agreed to be interviewed and filled in the same questionnaire as in the original experiment. The results were astonishingly consistent: those in the experimental group and the control group gave much the same answers as they had done a quarter of a century before. The test subjects from the experimental group described the Good Friday service of 1962 as one of the high points in their spiritual lives. They all claimed that the experiment had had a positive influence on them. Some attributed their later socially aware outlook to it, while others said it had helped them come to a positive accommodation with their fear of death.
Nevertheless, most of the former participants also recalled that the experiment also had its negative aspects. There were moments when they thought they were going mad or dying. Pahnke only treated this aspect in passing in his thesis. In particular he hushed up the fact that one subject had to be injected with an antidote when the situation got out of hand: seized with an urge to put Pastor Thurman’s call to spread the word of Christ into action straight away, one student left the chapel and went out onto the street, from where he had to be fetched back. . .
Just one member of the control group claimed that the experiment had benefited him greatly. Not that it was the church service as such that had such a positive effect on him, but rather the decision he made during it to try psychedelic drugs himself at the next available opportunity.