Archive for January, 2004

Book Review: LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process

Thursday, January 15th, 2004

LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process
Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Ph.D. and Oscar Janiger, M.D.
Foreword by Rick Strassman, M.D.
Park Street Press, 2003

From 1954 to 1962, Dr. Oscar Janiger, an American researcher, conducted a groundbreaking set of clinical LSD studies. Almost a thousand people from all walks of life participated, people with little or no expectation of what to expect from the LSD experience. Janiger’s goal was to create as neutral a setting as possible, offering no particular guidance beyond observing safety protocols, in an attempt to determine what the core characteristics of the LSD experience, if any, might be. Along the way, he developed a substudy to observe the effects that LSD had on professional artists and their work.

In LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process, Dr. Marlene Dobkin de Rios reports on the results of Janiger’s studies, in a book that is provocative, frustrating, and ultimately points to potential avenues for building on Janiger’s work. De Rios, a medical anthropologist and author of Visionary Vine and Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives, is the author here, presenting Janiger’s work and drawing conclusions of her own based on additional knowledge that has accumulated since the time of Janiger’s research.

In truth, the book’s title is slightly misleading; there are really two books here, LSD and the Creative Process and LSD and Spirituality. I suppose it was too much to hope that the book might actually explore a relationship between creativity and spirituality in the context of LSD, but perhaps it’s best left to artists to tease out and describe that relationship.

The artist substudy focused primarily on painters and visual artists, asking them to create a “before LSD” and “during LSD” piece based on a tribal doll that Janiger had on hand. The tendency was for realistic or representational styles to become more abstract or expressionistic while under the influence, and although it’s not clear whether the “during” pictures are generally inferior or superior, it’s often the case that the artists believed the “during” pieces were influential breakthroughs in their styles. One artist wrote, “LSD opened up a whole new world of creative possibilities both in art and in my life. I became more daring and more willing to venture into the unknown, into the mysterious.” In a follow-up study with 25 of the artists in 1986, de Rios notes, “Many believed [LSD] had influenced their work from that point on… if the experience wasn’t the most important in their artistic development, it was one of the most important.” Several artists, reflecting the proselytizing that is common to first-time LSD users, expressed that all artists should experience the perceptual shift of LSD.

Believing that “LSD favors the prepared mind,” Janiger only allowed professional, accomplished artists into his study. He found that “the artists who were most able to represent their subjective LSD experiences in their art were those who had most developed their technical abilities so that they had the rigor to bring back to consensual reality their artistic vision.” LSD didn’t make non-artists into artists, or bad artists into good artists – it had no specific impact on the development of technique, but by giving artists a new way to model perception and experience, it changed their overall approaches.

Meanwhile, in the larger study, Janiger found that 24% of respondents indicated they’d had a mystical experience of some kind. One volunteer, for instance, wrote, “The overriding feeling of the LSD experience was one of wholeness, unity and a kind of unutterable joy and contentment.” Indeed, another volunteer offered a great list of attributes that all mystical experiences share, ranging from a total experience of “nowness” to a dramatic experience of “meaning,” all of which LSD provided. Janiger considered spiritual responses an anomaly, while de Rios wonders why so few responses were self-identified as mystical.

The book leaves open several opportunities to make analogies between creative process on the one hand (“Picasso says the most important feature of looking at things creatively: When you paint an apple, you should be an apple – [psychedelics] fuse the individual with the object perceived”) and spirituality on the other (“In mystical states there is a complete lack of differentiation between the self and the object of awe and reverence, and boundaries dissolve”). Mystical states are described as having “a profound and intrinsic sense of underlying beauty,” but no attempt is made to explore that from an aesthetic direction. There is, in fact, only one example given where the analogy is made explicitly, by one of the volunteers, a musician, who wrote, “The essence of religious experience… permeated the afternoon to a degree of intensity that I had never known, except for brief, fleeting moments in the past… mostly while I was composing. They had been so intense and special that there was no mistaking their absolute similarity to the… LSD state.” In addition, no presentation of the spiritual beliefs of the artists in the substudy is presented which might give insight into the lives of those artists most affected by LSD.

Clearly I am pointing at the idea that spirituality and creativity can be very intertwined if not isomorphic in an individual. Indeed, the word “inspiration” often invoked by artists is as much spiritual (“in spirit”) as it is creative, and artists often say “The spirit moved me,” referring to some ethereal Muse that might well be a spiritual one. Of course, the intersection of “science” with “spirituality” – as expressed in neurotheology, for instance – is almost as unwieldy as the intersection of “science” with “art.” It is to Janiger’s credit that he nevertheless attempted the study in the first place, even if his approach seems to result in a haphazard jumble of science and art. It’s tentative first steps like these that often point the way for future explorers.

Toward the end of the book, de Rios describes ritual psychedelic use in contexts such as the Native American Church and its use of peyote, or União do Vegetal and its use of ayahuasca. She observes that the inherent suggestibility in the psychedelic state allows shamans and medicine men to create culturally sanctioned healing and community building via psychedelics. She contrasts this with Janiger’s unwillingness to “stage manage” his volunteers’ experiences, which produces a huge range of idiosyncratic responses.

But trained shamans and trained artists go through similar rigors, similar discomforts, and employ similar sleights-of-mind, to produce similarly magical results. “Suggestibility” is another way of saying “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the alchemical transformation at the heart of good theatre or good art in general. The “acid tests” that led to the rise of the Grateful Dead, and the explosion of the rave scene, are good examples of contexts where psychedelic use seems appropriate and perhaps even integral. But future artists may create even more compelling, and likely thoroughly unique, contexts for using psychedelics to explore “art as mystical experience,” once the inspiration strikes.

Regardless, LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process is a dry but valuable addition to our understanding of LSD. Janiger’s research has left several doors wide open, and the paths to those doors are clearly described; hopefully, others will someday take up his exploration where he left off.