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Psychedelic Explorer's Guide
by James Fadiman, PhD
Publisher:
Park Street Press 
Year:
2011 
ISBN:
1594774021 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 6/30/2014

James Fadiman was on the front lines of legal psychedelic science when the US outlawed psilocybin and LSD and imposed new restrictions on psychedelic research in the late 1960s. Working at Stanford University and in association with the International Foundation for Advanced Study, Fadiman and his colleagues had accrued a wealth of data, insight and understanding concerning the psychedelic experience and the contexts in which psychedelics can be used to dramatic effect. They were processing their findings when the boot came down on these substances in 1966. In the decades that followed before legal studies resurfaced, the question remained: what to do with all the information accumulated during the (now quasi-mythical) golden age of above-ground psychedelics research?

In the case of Fadiman’s already classic The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, the answer would be to load as much of it as possible into a single, highly accessible volume intended for popular consumption, float it down the bull-rushes, and hope for the best. The result is part instruction manual, part time capsule, part Kryptonian baby-ark and part wartime propaganda literature parachuted over the front lines. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of the medieval Irish monks who preserved the treasures of the classical world during a time of confusion and darkness. Digging through Fadiman’s collection of techniques, guidelines, accounts and resources is like exploring that delightful care-package of cookies, letters, chocolate bars, and fresh socks you got while away at summer camp.

The book is a well-curated chorus of voices, including Fadiman’s and a number of other contributors’. To say that The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide has something for everyone is as clichéd as it is true. For those who are new to the psychedelic experience the book provides procedural advice on how to get the most out of one’s first trip that is as coherent as any Boy Scout manual on setting up tents. (Note: Fadiman is of a school that believes overwhelmingly in having a sitter or guide presiding over one’s psychedelic sessions, and so the first few sections of the book contain a general orientation and protocol considerations for guided sessions).

And that’s just the beginning. For connoisseurs of psychedelic cultural history there’s an overview of the experiences of early psychedelic pioneers, bringing in testimonial voices from figures such as Albert Hoffman, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Stanislav Grof, Alexander Shulgin, Tim Leary, and other key figures responsible for bringing awareness of psychedelics to the scientific and cultural mainstreams. For those interested in the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelics for healing and self-exploration as well as those more interested in the visionary and spiritual side of entheogen use, there is a nuanced breakdown of both approaches. The book contains a wealth of up-to-date medical knowledge sufficient to acquaint prospective trippers with legitimate safety concerns, and to dispel commonly held myths and misconceptions about the dangers of psychedelics use.

Lovers of data-driven research will find charts, graphs and standard deviations in abundance. For those of you out there who wish you’d had some sensible suggestions on hand that time your best friend ran screaming out into the night with nothing more on him or her than socks and your car keys, there is a valuable chapter on managing psychedelic emergencies. There is also a tremendous section on the little known topic of psychedelic micro-dosing for improvement of normal functioning. In short, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide is—tip to stern—a book that lives up to the promise of its title.

What really sets The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide apart, however, is Fadiman’s account of his own original research into the use of LSD for creativity and problem solving. His findings were extraordinary, and even seasoned heads who might feel themselves beyond the need for introductory tripping protocols owe it to themselves to become acquainted with his results. Briefly, while Grof was charting new realms of the human unconscious, and researchers such as Oscar Jangier were studying the extent to which LSD changed artistic processes such as painting (it was clear that it did, though, to be fair, somewhat less clear whether the post-acid art was necessarily better) Fadiman and his colleagues were up to something altogether different: administering psychedelics to professionals in fields such as mathematics, architects, engineering and science, to see if the experience was able to enhance creative problem-solving ability sufficient to produce “concrete, valid, and feasible solutions assessable by the pragmatic criteria of modern industry and mainstream science.” (pg 123) Overwhelmingly, the answer would seem to be that it was.

If for no other reason (and there are lots of other reasons), it’s worth getting a copy of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide to read the case studies from this research. The selected subjects were serious professionals who had been working for a period of many months on a problem they’d had no success with—and where a significant amount of money was on the line. Among the most exciting of these case studies were two architects who, after returning from their respective states of ecstatic union with the source of all things, were able to put pen to graph paper and sketch out a number of solid, technical designs for buildings which were later accepted by their clients and built. In one particularly stirring example, the architect was able, in his head, to experience a spontaneous vision of an entire completed design for a university arts and cultural center. In his mind’s eye he was able to walk through a full-color, vividly realized three-dimensional representation of the entire complex, observing even the types of plant life present, and with the ability, as he drew, to accurately calculate the costs and engineering considerations of the project. Later, the design was approved, by clients who had no inkling of its psychedelic provenience.

Fadiman and his colleagues achieved their results by assiduously focusing on factors of set and setting—by carefully managing the expectations surrounding a psychedelic experience. In earlier experiments, trippers in clinical settings who had been told they would be experiencing a temporary psychotic state unsurprisingly felt themselves to be going mad. Subjects in research conducted in theological settings who were told to expect spiritual revelations or religious epiphanies overwhelmingly tended to do just that. Fadiman and his team, however, were the first to set up psychedelic sessions in which the subjects were told they could expect significant enhancement of their cognitive and intellectual faculties, and then stepped back to watch the breakthroughs come pouring in. Even for readers who aren’t architects or mathematicians, the lessons of this study are powerful.

Where the psychedelic experience is concerned there is no single factor affecting outcome quite so powerful as the beliefs and expectations that the subject––as well as his or her facilitators––bring to the experience. As Fadiman puts it “by establishing an anticipation of improved performance, we seemed to bring it about”. It’s for this reason that he takes pains to point out, in the opening sections of the book, how many of the astronomical leaps forward in the collective human experience––from Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA (wrongly alleged to have been while micro-dosing LSD! See http://realitysandwich.com/314873/francis-crick-dna-lsd/) to Stewart Brand’s push to provide the public with its first photographs of the earth from space––all came about owing to revelations occasioned under the influence.

In the end, it is the spirit with which The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide is presented that makes it a classic. In the words of the introduction:


To become more aware is your birthright. Denying anyone access to any facet of reality in the name of religion, science, medicine, or law serves neither the individual nor society. Whenever opportunities for self-realization are suppressed or in danger of being lost, there is a moral imperative to protect and restore them. This book has been written so that certain knowledge, experiences and techniques for increased awareness would not vanish. (pg 1)

Fadiman and his collaborators are to be congratulated for having put together such a handsome, helpful and comprehensive collection of important information. It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to responsible psychedelic use, or a better signpost pointing towards its future horizons. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide is an indispensable resource that surely belongs on every tripper’s shelf.

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