Have you ever tripped out so hard that you started hearing voices? How about that sensation of feeling the “souls” of everything surrounding you. The spirits of plants, animals, or even inanimate objects? Have you ever experienced something that you can’t quite explain, which you know is real — but nobody will believe you anyway because you experienced it while on shrooms?

You might have extrasensory perception (ESP) triggered by full-on doses of psychedelics, such as psilocybin from magic mushrooms and truffles. It’s a phenomenon often seen in those who enjoy the hardcore psychonaut lifestyle. This lifestyle often aligns with paranormal or non-materialist beliefs. Believe it or not, the mysterious link between psychedelics and ESP has been studied by world-renowned experts for decades. Not just by hippie psychics, mind you, but also by scientists in the field of psychedelics. 

But, where does the tendency for ESP come from? Are the visions, sounds, and feelings real, or are they just a placebo effect from the hallucinogenic high? Does the have something to do with opening your mind to higher planes of existence? 

There’s only one way to find out…

The Genie’s Bottle

Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling How to Change Your Mind which served as the basis for the eponymous Netflix docuseries, revealed a magical, extrasensory experience while he was on a shroom trip. He started to see the plants in his garden as “persons” full of life, as he shared in an interview with The New Statesman

“For the first time, I felt the presence of these plants. They were more alive than they had ever been.”

Pollan’s experience while on magic mushrooms is hardly rare. It is common for trippers to report paranormal events after taking such mind-altering compounds. David Luke, a psychologist at Greenwich University, studied surveys of people who took psychedelics. He saw that those who bumped into psi phenomena ranged from 18 to 83 percent. The most common category of which was telepathy. Others reported knowing an event before it happens, aka precognition

Luke wrote in his book Other Worlds: Psychedelics and Exceptional Human Experience:

“As psychedelics become more mainstream, we are opening up the breadth of the population who are getting access to them. Once you take the cork out of the genie’s bottle, we cannot ignore these kinds of experiences.”

Telepathic Pioneers

What is telepathy, exactly? 

The word itself derives from the Greek word tele, which means “from a distance”, and pathos, which means “feeling”. As a term, telepathy was coined in the 1880s by Frederick Myers, a British classicist who co-founded the Society for Psychical Research in London. Myers was intrigued by several case studies of near-death people who reported being able to talk with loved ones from far away. He would then visit the said loved ones to confirm that they got the “mind-letters”

Back then, it wasn’t strange for psychedelic scholars to be vocal about their interest in what lies beyond the visible world. The list of pioneers who were also deeply into psi phenomena includes Timothy Leary, Albert Hofmann, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Gordon Wasson, Humphry Osmond, Al Hubbard, Stanislav Grof, and Walter Pahnke, among other famous figures. 

(Photo by H. Mairet via Wikimedia Commons)

Luke wrote in his book:

“Pretty much all of the first discoverers, explorers, and encounters with psychedelics, they all had their own kind of paranormal-like experience. The literature is replete with this. 

“A lot of those earliest researchers and explorers were all very much on board with the idea of psychedelics inducing genuine psychic experiences.”

One theory by the British philosopher Gerald Heard, who belonged to the Society for Psychical Research, pushed that all of humanity once had telepathic powers a long, long time ago. When modern civilization came in, these abilities started to fade and then vanish. Heard wrote that we would regain these skills when society enters a New Age of Being — a renaissance, if you will. 

Psilocybin and Telepathy

According to Anna Lutkajtis, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sydney, there are two main ways for people to experience telepathy while on psychedelics:

  • Speaking with “others” who materialise in visions, such as dead loved ones, plant spirits, aliens, or elves; and
  • Sending and receiving information from people you are tripping with via the “direct transfer of thoughts”. Think Professor X from the X-Men.
(Photo by NIDA via Wikimedia Commons)

A survey of 30 people who had taken magic mushrooms at a retreat was taken. From this Lutkajtis saw that three out of 30 people had perceived telepathy of the second type (i.e. direct transfer of thoughts) with their fellow trippers. One individual sensed another person’s thoughts, but did not bother to confirm the ESP because “they felt it wasn’t particularly important”. Another peeked outside and watched a dog bark, and “felt they could understand the message the dog was trying to convey to its owner”. Still another participant had a vision of becoming a tree. When this vision tapered down, another person revealed that they also had a vision…of the first participant as a tree. 

Luke wrote in his book that while scientists cannot readily confirm as of yet that psychedelics can cause ESP, the compounds can still heighten one’s feeling of having a telepathic experience:

“People tend to have more psychic experiences as a result of taking psychedelics. People talk about having more synchronicities, more psychic episodes, and they increase their belief in these things.”

MK-Ultra Mind Control

There is a historical basis for linking psychedelics and psychical/paranormal research. 

In fact, some of the biggest names in early psychedelic research were quite obsessed with precognition, telepathy, and ESP. These scientists saw a new potential in magic mushrooms and LSD beyond their recreational use. They wondered if psychedelics could help trigger psychic abilities. Or, at the very least alter one’s mind to be “more ripe” for such powers. 

Have you heard of Project MK-Ultra? It was briefly mentioned in Season 1 of Stranger Things as a covert operation to create “secret soldiers” endowed with telepathic and/or telekinetic powers, such as Eleven’s. But what most people don’t know is that MK-Ultra was a real CIA program that ran from 1953 to 1964. The kicker? MK-Ultra also sought to trigger mind-control with the help of actual psychedelics such as LSD.  

The secret program in Stranger Things which gave Eleven her telekinetic powers was based on a real-life U.S. government program called MK-Ultra. Here, psychedelics were used to access hidden psychic abilities for espionage. (Images via Netflix) 

LSD, Visions, and Psychic Driving

Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute, took things to another level. The doctor used LSD to do psychic driving experiments on human subjects. Cameron put his subjects into a drug-induced coma for weeks, or even months, at a time, while playing tape loops of simple statements in the background. 

Psychedelic therapist Stanislov Grof was also fascinated with LSD’s link with the supernatural. He studied patients who, after taking LSD, began to have visions of dead people with secret wisdom. 

(Image via Our Amazing World on YouTube)

One case in particular was that of the wife of Walter Pahnke, who had led Harvard’s Good Friday Experiment which used psilocybin to invite mystical occurrences. In her LSD vision, Mrs. Pahnke heard her husband’s request to find a specific book that was hidden in the library, and to return it. 

Luke wrote:

“Although she claimed to have had no prior knowledge of the book, she managed to locate and return it. Of course, it is possible that the knowledge of the book already lying in her subconscious.”

Grokking: The Melding of Minds

There has been evidence that taking psychedelics, even in clinical settings, can cause people to have telepathic experiences, or at least believe in ESP. In a 1959 study on using LSD to treat alcoholism, the number of people who said they “felt telepathic communication” rose from 49 percent in the first LSD session to 80 percent by the second one. A 1962 survey of people who took LSD (alongside talk therapy) found that 78 percent now believed in telepathy and clairvoyance. 

A strange new belief caught the western world by storm. In the ‘60s, proto-hippies flirted with the idea that two or more people could “meld minds” while taking psychedelics together. They called this experience grokking. It was a name borrowed from Stranger in a Strange Land, a 1961 sci-fi novel about a human raised by Martians who shows telepathic powers in religious orgies.

Image via Creative Commons

Since the early ‘50s, there have been 17 published studies containing experiments that used psychedelics solely to trigger ESP, with mixed results. Further proof that people are still curious about psi phenomena, and are eager to use shrooms or LSD as a way to explore them… 

Unlocking Paranormal Abilities

In August of 1963, psychologist Stanley Krippner tripped out after psychedelic icon Timothy Leary had given him some magic mushrooms. Krippner then described an ESP experience which he had right after: a vision of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — months before the fateful event in November 22, 1963. 

During a shroom trip, Krippner had a vision of John F. Kennedy’s assassination months before it took place. (Photo via Pxhere.com)

Years later, Leary wrote in the Psychedelic Reader that psychedelics might be the “key” to the human nervous system, and can therefore unlock paranormal abilities. Case in point? Luke points at Al Hubbard, aka the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”. He was rumoured to have gained psychic abilities after using LSD:

“[Hubbard] became somewhat notorious for winning on gaming machines in casinos, his reputation being such that he was politely escorted out when he reached a certain limit of earning.”

The First Door of Perception

In 1957, Humphry Osmond, who first coined the word “psychedelic”, wrote about how he and psychologist Duncan Blewett had a telepathic experience after taking mescaline. Luckily, there was a sober person to witness the whole thing. Luke described the two friends’ brush with ESP as follows:

“[Osmond and Blewett] successfully transmitted telepathic information in an informal experiment to such a degree that an independent observer became acutely panicky at the uncanniness of the event…”

Osmond’s buddy, the sci-fi author Aldoux Huxley, was a fan of a theory by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. According to Bergson, the brain filters out the “vast sensory inputs” and memories of our day-to-day lives, in order to make reality less overwhelming. Without this filter, one might be able to recall every detail that ever occurred to them. Or perhaps perceive the hidden vibrations of the world at large. Almost like being a psychic! 

From L-R: Humphry Osmond, Duncan Blewett, Aldous Huxley, and Eileen Garrett. (Photos via Creative Commons)

Reality-Reducing Valve

Huxley liked this theory a lot, and wrote that psychedelics could help open up one’s dormant telepathic abilities. He proposed that one could have access to mystical experiences by taking psychedelics. They could be used to switch off the brain’s “reality-reducing” valve. The thought led to Huxley’s title for his iconic book, The Doors of Perception — itself from a quote by William Blake:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Eileen Garrett, a psychic and “trance medium” who was close friends with Huxley and Osmond, claimed to have spoken on the psychic plane with Huxley’s wife after she had died. Later on, Garrett worked with Osmond and a psychedelic research team in Canada. The psychic had only high praise for LSD as a new tool of the trade:

“I have had psychic experiences which occur at the height of the LSD experience. I believe the drug has made me a better, more accurate sensitive when I perceive, hear, think, and feel.”

Psychedelics and Panpsychism

Sandeep Nayak, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, said that it’s rare for people to rapidly change their beliefs in a long-lasting way. As such, being able to shift one’s core worldview after taking psychedelics is a very big deal. 

In a preprint of an upcoming article, Nayak and his team found that people shifted toward non-physicalist beliefs, or “claims that parts of reality and/or consciousness are not reducible to matter”, after taking psychedelics. A reality shifting away from materialistic values, and closer to panpsychism — the philosophy that all things have minds, including animals, plants, or inanimate objects.

Photo via Pxhere.com

David Yaden, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic Research, thinks that part of the appeal of psychedelics is their ability to trigger belief in a person:

“That’s one of the deepest questions in the field and something very interesting and worth pursuing.”

Ontological Shock

Despite its allure, ESP and other supernatural experiences are not always fun. Some people may be stunned to discover that other “realities” do exist, and that they can never go back to not knowing. As they say, ignorance is bliss. Or is it? 

Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, who met with people who can vividly recall being abducted by aliens, described this emotional state as ontological shock:

“…the bleak realisation that what they have experienced actually occurred and that reality as they have defined it is forever altered.”

Psychedelics such as shrooms and LSD can draw a person out of their sense of self, and it can be challenging for some. This is why psychedelic researchers have been working on “trip-free” versions of psilocybin so that patients can enjoy its antidepressant benefits — without having to undergo ego death, necessarily. 

A radical shift in one’s worldview can be bittersweet. (Photo via Pxhere.com)

Will these patients be missing out on the experience, you ask? Perhaps so, but for good reason. A recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, written by William Smith and Dominic Sisti, argued for the patient’s right to not shake their worldview in exchange for psychedelic healing:

“Focusing on the case of psilocybin, we argue that the peculiar features of psychedelics pose certain novel risks, which warrant an enhanced informed consent-process — one that is more comprehensive than what may be typical for other psychiatric medications.”

New Vibrations

That being said, having your worldview changed by psychedelics could be seen as a “positive challenge”, dontcha think? Luke wrote a defence of such reality-shifts in his book:

“People could think that the world or universe is more interconnected than we ordinarily give it credence for.”

In the end, Luke said that with psychedelic legislation changes opening the doors for legal access, science will have to embrace how the public sees altered states of consciousness. Indeed, more life-changing accounts of ESP due to psilocybin, LSD, and other compounds are bound to follow. Will these reports be accepted in the future of psychedelic medicine? Only time will tell…