LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process by Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Oscar Janiger

Originally published in 2003 ‘LSD, Spirituality and the Creative Process’ is essentially an examination of the subjective effects of Lysergic acid diethylamide, primarily in light of the LSD research conducted by Dr. Oscar Janiger. Written by Marlene Dobkin de Rios, the text is partially derived from a series of interviews with Janiger, conducted between March 2001 and his death in August of the same year, and is also a broad synthesis of Rios’ own research with shamanic cultures. The result is a clear sighted text delineating the various readings of the LSD experience that arose out of Janiger’s research.

The primary aim of Dr. Oscar Janiger’s research with LSD was to study the effects of the drug on a large, highly differentiated group within a non-clinical setting; a privately rented home in Wilton Place, Los Angeles. This marks an interesting point in which LSD began to outgrow its clinical settings and spread socially. Over the course of eight years he conducted LSD research with over 930 individuals from a wide cross-section of U.S. society including construction workers, professionals and artists. However, in 1962, before he could reach his aim of 1000 research subjects, the Food and Drug Administration confiscated his LSD, along with the stock of many other researchers. However, thanks to follow up studies by organizations like MAPS, Rios’ interviews with Janiger, the detailed research notes and hindsight, many interesting ideas have come to the fore, which seem pertinent and relevant in today’s psychedelic climate.

Janiger attempted to minimise the influence of religious, spiritual, therapeutic and creative settings for the bulk study. His main task was data collection in the form of introductory interviews, progressive tape recordings, reports, follow-up questionnaires etc.. Quite apart from the usual scientific reductionism, he applied an inductive method in his analysis. He identified 28 core characteristics of the LSD experience but published very little “because most of his data fell into the category of phenomenology studies, which many of his peers did not consider particularly scientific” (Rios 16). Rios compares these 28 characteristics with psychologist Arnold Ludwig’s series of 10 characteristics of altered states of consciousness (1969) and reveals a high degree of intertextuality between the two.

Personal accounts are included to demonstrate the characteristics. They come from such headings as ‘Somatic Discomfort’, ‘Paranoid Feelings’ and ‘Importance, Purpose, Meaning, Real’. Here’s an example from under the heading Internal-Visual Images and Synaesthesia that beautifully illustrates what Walter Benjamin, in the past, had referred to as a ‘derangement of the senses’ and which you can find examples of across drug writing:

“The walls flap in the breeze like tapestries. They run like melted wax. The floor flows like a river. The folds and textures of cloth become rich and wonderful to look at. Lights seem to change gradually. The air seems to have become textured, colored or with structure, particularly near the corners of objects” (48)

Rios coins Janiger’s results succinctly: “The nature of the individual drug experience reflects the basic psychophysiological action of the substance as it interacts with the total life experience that the person brings to it” (Rios 25). Whilst not favouring any particular system “it seemed to produce a marked shift in our fundamental perceptual frame of reference upon which human’s ongoing concept of reality rests” (ibid.). However, overlying this seemingly universal action, were the subjective effects on certain characteristic human modes like the creative process.

On one occasion an artist saw a Hopi kachina doll in Janiger’s office and wanted to draw it when under the influence. As a result, Janiger soon developed a parallel study of the effects of LSD on 60 artists and 40 writers and musicians, in order to reveal how LSD interacts with the creative process. The kachina doll became a repeated object in the creative sub-study for artists. Rios also writes about several other studies on creativity/art and LSD and looks at their often conflicting results. For instance, some results say LSD impairs the artist and adversely effects their motor skills, whilst many artists themselves have claimed it enhances their perceptive qualities. An identification of change is central to both – a line of flight if you will – that, whether negative or positive, reveals an efficacy with creativity.

In 1986 Janiger held an exhibition of the art produced in the sub-study at his home in Santa Monica. 800 invites were sent out and he received over 5000 responses. 250 paintings and drawings were produced during the study and they were examined in 1971 by Carl Hertel, Professor of Art History at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. He said a longitudinal study would have been useful and that most change occurred in style, line, color and texture. Interestingly, he didn’t make a qualitative comment one way or the other. Perhaps, for reasons of taste and theory, the qualitative assessment will remain an open question. The following is quote from one of the artists (possibly paraphrased by Janiger):

“Juxtaposition of red and green seemed to have a more heightened intensity of hue, and for me, were more subject to animistic perception. The surface on which black and white pictures were painted undulated as well as the images upon them. They didn’t shift. This set me to wondering if the heightened senses of smell, color, form and sound isn’t so entirely staggering to our usual habit of perceiving that we lose control of the faculty to relate, there being too much going on all at one time” (Rios 90)

Although Janiger tried to create neutral settings that wouldn’t adversely influence the experience, he also found that nearly a quarter of those tested had some sort of ‘mystical experience’. In fact,  24% of subjects purported a mystical or spiritual encounter. ‘Spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ are taken to refer to “any person’s direct, subjective communion with a deity, spirit, or ultimate reality” (Rios 115). Rios then discusses other research at the time that explored this area, more specifically that of Timothy Leary and Walter N. Pahnke’s Chapel Marsh experiment (1962). She also looks at theologian R. C. Zaehner who criticised Chapel Marsh, saying it showed the soul integrating with nature and with an absolute reality but failed to confront “the living, personal God”. Obviously, Zaehner is attempting to locate a Christian reality, an object that Jane Dunlap had purportedly found in Exploring Inner Space (1961). This raises interesting questions as to the nature of the ‘mystical experience’ induced by psychedelics like do psychedelics reveal a particular conception of reality?

In chapter seven Rios poses her own question: “To what degree does culture determine the effects of LSD and LSD-like substances?” There then ensues a broad discussion between Rios’ work and that of Janiger’s. Rios talks of Universal Cultural Principles and looks at her shamanism research, wherein she found the following examples: 1. Perception of time 2. Transformation 3. Spiritual animation of the psychedelic plant 4. Death/resurrection, and 5. Paranormal activity. It seems to me that this question is the very heart of psychedelic research in the humanities, but whilst it isn’t clearly answered in this text – there is no simple mirror in the experiences of Western and indigenous subjects – the question itself is well articulated.

Language and communication lie at the core of the question of culture. Linguistic structure and meaning are not so easily translated across cultural barriers, so in attempting to find a common ground, from which to analyse different approaches, Rios talk about a “theatre” of activity. To some degree the theatrical space, in research terms, is identical with the experience, the verbalisation and the text; the challenge is perhaps underlining how different cultures utilise the theatrical space as opposed to simply formulating a categorical analysis of content, which is reliant on a language already laden thickly with historicism. However, having said that, there is a selection of poetry written by Janiger’s subjects in the appendices and it really enlightens the language problem: “look at a rock/ there is so much/ within that rock/ and yet ask someone/ what they see and they/ will say a rock” By C.H..

LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process also includes passages on the possible uses of psychedelics as tools, passages on indigenous cultures and on emerging Brazilian syncretic groups like the União do Vegetal. The final section of the book, exploring psychedelics and culture, goes a long way to placing Janiger’s research within a far wider context, and just as the poetry can illuminate the question of culture, so culture can help illuminate the importance of Janiger’s research. This is a very useful text for two reasons; firstly, for demonstrating the breadth and changing standards of LSD research from the 1950s and early 60s and, secondly, for reposing questions like the search for modern, “socially-sanctioned models” of LSD consumption. Overall, a great book that will be of interest to researchers from both the human sciences and humanities.

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5 Responses

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  4. January 23, 2018

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