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teafaerie | Musings | Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Psychedelic telepathy is a fascinating and confounding enigma. Its staggering implications challenge many of our most basic assumptions about what it means to be a human being, and I strongly suspect that a deeper understanding of the phenomenon could be of incalculable value to our species.

BodyWorld by Dash Shaw

BodyWorld by Dash Shaw

That’s why I’m coming forward and stating for the record that I whole-heartedly believe in it. I’m not sure if the word “telepathy” is quite robust enough to encompass the broad range of commonly reported experiences. But I’m absolutely convinced that under some conditions some psychedelics can sometimes trigger or potentiate transpersonal effects that cannot be satisfactorily explained away merely by invoking concepts like imagination, subtle signaling, or confirmation bias.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. But frankly, I’ve been afraid that I’d sound like a crazy person to the more rigorous thinkers out there. I mean, it really does sound kind of flaky, when you come right down to it. And of course I don’t have any evidence. Or rather, the only “evidence” I can bring to the table is that of my own admittedly drug-besotted senses (which is obviously suspect, however impressive). Well, that and the hundreds of equally suspect (and occasionally equally impressive) stories that have been related to me by others. Plus the literally thousands of like-sounding reports that can be found here on Erowid and elsewhere. Which still doesn’t add up to proof. And I get that. I really, really, really, really do.

I did an informal Internet survey about this a couple of months ago, and the results were amazing to me. Around 250 people took the survey and well more than half of them said they thought that drug-induced transpersonal experiences were “normal or common as opposed to rare or uncommon”. Lots of people reported that such experiences happened to them “all the time”, and one frequent flyer even said that she thought establishing telepathic rapport was “the whole reason for taking psychedelics in the first place”. I collected some truly astonishing stories. But that still doesn’t confirm that I’m right about this. I mean, it’s technically possible that we’ve all just fallen under the spell of the same persistent and uncanny sorts of misperception. Besides which, the survey itself was admittedly somewhat poorly constructed. It posed some rather leading questions. And it also specifically targeted the type of person who would click on something as redonkulous-sounding as a “psychedelic telepathy survey” in the first place.

So please understand that I’m not trying to “prove” anything here. Less still am I trying to present some kind of a cogent theory about how it all works. I just want to feel the topic out a little bit, because I think that it might turn out to be extremely important. In any event, the commonality of the subjective perception of psychedelic telepathy cannot be denied, and I find that perception itself to be more than a little bit intriguing.

Healing Buddhas by Nisvan ©2006 Nisvan

I’m also not trying to suggest that telepathy is exclusively a psychedelic peculiarity. It is well known that all sorts of transpersonal experiences have been reported by millions of presumably sober people throughout history. All of us have heard stories about mothers who “just know” what their children are up to, or lovers who repeatedly text one another at the exact same moment. Maybe you have an uncanny “Spidey-sense” that seems to reliably inform you when a partner has been unfaithful. Or you feel like you’ve sometimes gotten a whole complex download mysteriously transmitted to you in a brief moment of eye contact.

I think that most of this stuff can be chalked up to common intuition, which I tend to define as “a guess augmented by data the guesser doesn’t consciously know that he or she is in possession of”. As a species we communicated with pheromones long before we started talking, and I suspect that our noses may be telling us far more about our companions’ ever-shifting moods and intentions than we typically give them credit for, even if much of that information only registers on a subconscious level. Extremely subtle facial expressions and body movements play a big role, too. A good actor can occasionally even replicate the eye contact phenomenon on camera, making the audience feel like they got a momentary glimpse into the soul of a fictional character.

And a lot of it is just context. Successfully modeling the behavior of others is an important survival trait, and we’re constantly picking up on millions of tiny signals that our brains may not consider important enough to bring up for conscious review, but which may nevertheless eventually integrate into a gestalt awareness. Like when you suddenly realize that your boss has been planning on firing you as soon as you finish your current project. Or the moment when it actually dawns on you that your long-time friend is gay. It might seem like it came to you all at once, but in reality you’ve just finally managed to add up all of the little pieces of evidence that you didn’t even know you’d been collecting.

I’m entirely cognizant of the fact that the vast majority of reported instances of apparent psychedelic telepathy are quite naturally attributable to the same things. It’s well known that certain drugs can increase our attention to detail, and allow us to integrate subconscious data in novel and revealing ways. So naturally we’re more likely to pick up on extremely subtle cues. We’re also in a better position to figure things out simply by looking at them from a fresh perspective, or to finally come to a supraliminal awareness of information that we’ve long been suppressing. This is certainly at least part of the reason why so many people believe that psychedelics cause them to be especially sensitive to extra sensory perception. Empathogens are particularly famous for facilitating this kind of integration, and therefore it’s no wonder that they’re widely considered to confer telepathic properties. Especially when one factors in the sense of emotional closeness that they can engender, while at the same time putting a damper on their users’ critical thinking skills. Simultaneously goose the part of a person’s brain that induces the sensation of having a mystical experience (whatever that means), add a dash of the desire to believe, and the resulting morass sounds to me like an astonishingly efficient system for generating false positives. Especially if the putative telepath happens to be too high, or too “certain”, or too disinterested in actual research to even attempt to apply the most half-assed semblance of the scientific method.

I have little doubt that a decent percentage of so-called telepathic experiences are rooted in nothing more exotic than cranked-up empathy, psychological confusion, wishful thinking, and sloppy (or entirely absent) protocol. And it’s easy to dismiss a few wacky-sounding tall tales as improbable anomalies (say that ten times fast!), even if you do happen to be the person who experienced them personally. But like I said, I’ve heard a lot of incredible stories. And after the first few hundred times that you encounter the same sort of bizarre testimony, it really does start to suggest that something might be happening that is worthy of a closer look.

For the purposes of this essay, though, I’m mostly going to stick to talking about my own experiences. At the very least, I know for certain that my stories are not just bald-faced fabrications. They may well have been misperceived or poorly recorded by my memory; and it’s more than probable that they’ve been unconsciously patted into shape by repeated retellings. I swear to you all on my honor, however, that I’m herein committed to representing the truth as genuinely as I can. I strongly believe that it’s something like a sin to intentionally feed bad data to people who are earnestly trying to understand the Mystery. So if I’m just straight-up lying, may I have the absolute worst sort of horrible trips at the most distressing and embarrassing possible times. More painfully yet, may I be forever stymied in my own personal quest to figure this whole damned thing out.

I’ve had hundreds of apparently telepathic experiences whilst under the influence of various psychedelics and empathogens. They’ve ranged from the trivial and almost certainly false to the mind-bendingly profound and inexplicable.

I’ve occasionally sensed that I could pick up on other people’s private thoughts and feelings. I’ve sometimes felt like I could clearly transmit my thoughts and feelings to others, too. I’ve often had a related but qualitatively quite different experience that seems like I’m somehow synching up with another person or a group of people without necessarily involving the direct transmission of our thoughts and feelings at all. In that case, it’s more like our individual trips have gotten enmeshed in some way. Sometimes we’ll all start repeatedly saying or doing or desiring similar things at the same time. Or we’ll consistently be correctly finishing each other’s sentences. If we get separated, we may all “randomly” meet back up at the same non-predesignated location, and the stories of our solo adventures in the time that we spent apart may also seem to us to share an improbable congruence.

I’ve had truly incredible experiences while engaging in lovemaking on psychedelics, including intensely feeling like I was both male and female at the same time. On a few occasions I was suddenly shocked to realize that the person whose eyes I’d been staring into for a long time was the same female who looks just like I always look to myself in the mirror. (Except I’m so much more beautiful because my skin is all covered with those intricate self-animating patterns!) Sometimes it actually takes me a while to register that it’s rather odd that I can see myself exactly as if I were looking out of my partner’s hugely dilated pupils instead of my own. At which point I usually knock myself out of the moment in my excitement, sort of like when you accidentally wake yourself up as soon as you clearly come to the conscious awareness that you’ve been dreaming.

I’ve had the sense that I was avatar-swapping in small group settings, too. One time I got rather confused because I couldn’t figure out which member of our adventure party I was supposed to be, and I decided to settle the matter by suddenly raising my hand. My memory of the situation is that three out of the seven of us raised their hands at the exact same moment. But that moment was immediately lost in the Swirl, and when I later asked my fellow travelers to relate their impressions of the incident, some of them kind of vaguely remembered something about hand-raising, but nobody had any particularly clear memory of their thought process at the time. The journey in question took place long before I started videotaping my trips, so I can’t even be perfectly certain that it actually happened. I really do think it did, though. Fascinatingly, a couple of different people who filled out my psychedelic telepathy survey related stories that sounded suspiciously similar.

A lover once turned on me while we were both on a shitload of acid. At one point he started taunting me with phrases that had been used by a particularly evil childhood tormentor of mine. He even used the same intonation. It was incredibly surreal for me (to say nothing of terrifying), because I had never told a living soul about those horrible incidents at all. And it’s just “not” the kind of thing that somebody would ever make up at random, either. This one reminds me of a bit in Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations, which I had not yet read at the time of the aforementioned attack. It was during the part when Terence’s brother Dennis was deep in the thick of his weeks-long shamanic journey of integration. Apparently at some point Dennis started doing a perfect imitation of somebody that Terence had tripped with several months before in Kathmandu. According to Terence, he had not spoken about that strange trip to anyone, and the particular phrases that Dennis seemingly picked right out of his brother’s head were totally as random and unlikely as my own had been.

The Ayahuascaverse is just lousy with stories about shared visions. So much so that it’s pretty much taken for granted in many circles. One of the active compounds in Banisteriopsis caapi was originally named “telepathine” when they thought that it was a newly discovered chemical. It turned out that it had already been officially registered as harmine (extracted from Peganum harmala), which the Teafaerie thinks is too bad, because telepathine is obviously a much cooler-sounding name. In any event, “telepathine” was apparently descriptive of the effects that the botanists who rediscovered it observed in the Amazonian tribe members who took ayahuasca. I’ve heard stories about indigenous peoples listening to their shaman sing his songs and then later discussing the performance amongst themselves as if it had been a primarily visual experience, which they’d all shared as a group. I’ve never exactly had that happen to me, but I’ve definitely seen things on aya that other people very much seemed to be seeing at the same time, and later our verbal descriptions of these apparitions matched up closely enough to convince me that there really must be something to it.

What happens when a large group of people all get high together is a topic that really deserves its own whole column. Aspects of the group tripping dynamic were already being discussed (and actively experimented with) as early as the original Acid Tests, and the modern ecstatic dance community has rightfully enshrined the experience of collective consciousness as one of its principle raisons d’être. I’ve definitely had some incredibly epic moments on the dance floor where I felt like I was a part of some sort of gigantic super-organism that was pulsing and swelling as one; feeding our energy back to the DJ, and responding to his or her artful manipulation of tension as if to a mutual lover. If the vibe in a big group like that is thick enough, I can honestly get pretty damn high simply by dancing around in it. Contact high doesn’t always seem like the easily explainable placebo effect, either. At least in my own case, I’ve totally walked into an room full of heads and immediately found myself tripping clit, complete with a whole host of extremely drug-specific body sensations (like a particular sort of rushing nausea and the inexplicable way that acid always makes my teeth feel). I’ve also occasionally experienced strong visual hallucinations from a contact high. Which I totally admit could be completely imaginary. However, I find it quite intriguing that I’ve never been able to satisfactorily imagine the sort of visuals that I’m talking about when I’m all by myself. I’ve spent quite a bit of my alone and sober time genuinely trying really hard to bring up the latent mind’s-eye screensaver without anywhere near the same degree of success that I’ve had in the presence of tripping people.

The next story that I want to relate to you here is the very best totally-not-evidence that I have to offer on this topic. Frankly, I don’t expect very many people to believe that I’m not just making stuff up here (my protestations of integrity and the dire specter of my self-inflicted curses not withstanding). I figure I might as well trot it on out, though, because it’s just barely possible that somebody out there might be able to shed some light upon the matter, and the Teafaerie is utterly perplexed by this shit.

This one time, at Burning Man… My best friend and I were walking on the far playa with head-fulls of a cocktail that I feel like it would be irresponsible to identify. (I will say that it involved a mix of two strong psychedelics and a hefty dose of a well-known empathogen). To me it seemed that we were dressed in elegant Victorian clothing and walking through a beautiful park, perhaps on our way to a lovely picnic. Then the whole scene suddenly faded away. We were just standing on blank, white, flat, open playa. Which would have been bewildering enough, but my friend then turned to me and asked, “Were you just wearing a Mary Poppins dress a second ago? Like walking across green lawns and stuff? In the daytime?”

I allowed that I had seen what sounded on the surface like the same thing, but after a moment’s excited discussion I became uncertain. Time had been getting a little bit rubbery on us, and perhaps I had back-propagated the memory after he commented on it. A little while later, I found that we were walking through a darkened carnival midway, which again suddenly faded away to reveal that, no, we were actually just standing on blank, white, flat, open playa. This time I quickly told my friend not to speak and waited until I was sure that I had a clear idea of where we had just been in my mind. When I finally asked him what he had experienced, he said it had seemed to him like we were at some kind of a closed down amusement park or something. Cue the enthusiastic freak out.

This happened at least two more times that I remember, though the impression was that it kept happening over and over again. We could never catch ourselves going in to the shared imaginal space for some reason, but we always came back out at the exact same moment. We definitely both had at least one solid turn where we made sure that we unequivocally knew where we had just been in words before the other person spoke. Once we re-emerged at some physical distance apart, though both of us had been under the impression that we were walking with the other person by the seaside. We wisely decided to tie ourselves together after that one, but this was easier said than done and we eventually had to sit down on the playa to dig through our backpacks for a lighter to cut my hair ribbons with. It was then that my friend asked me if I could see the researchers. My heart jumped. I had been seeing strange looking people carrying clipboards out of the corner of my eye for a number of cycles at that point. Or had I? I could certainly see them now that he mentioned it. I waited until I was confident that I had my own version of the “researchers” clearly in mind, and I told him that the ones that I could see had a very specific look about them and that there was no possible way that he could just randomly get it right. He then informed me that all of his researchers looked like they were related to one another, but they weren’t identical. They were short, almost midgets, and they all wore glasses. And it seemed like they maybe had Down’s Syndrome or something. I will remember that moment for as long as I live, and I suspect that I will never truly give up on trying to understand it. A girl’s got to have a hobby, I guess.

That same friend and I later went on to have quite a few truly remarkable shared experiences, though only a couple of them impressed us as profoundly as what we would later come to call “the whole researchers thing.” We got kind of obsessed with the entire topic for a while. And as everybody who has wild talents (or persistent delusions) eventually comes to discover, the more time that one spends thinking about such things the more that they seem to manifest. And naturally the more that this stuff really does seem to be happening the more one is inclined to get fixated upon it…

Now we’re fairly intelligent people, and we’d both spent enough time in Chapel Perilous to know how very easy it is to get caught up in a self-reinforcing fantasy, especially if you manage to convince a friend to play along with you. It really did get pretty uncanny, though. It seemed like we were always “randomly” calling one another at the exact same moment and stuff like that. In the end, I think some of it actually did have to do with how entrained we were and how preternaturally attuned to one another we had become in the process of attempting to explore telepathic phenomena. Most of it was probably just confirmation bias, though. It’s easy to find what you’re looking for.

We did set up a number of fairly clever experiments, but for some reason we were never quite able to catch the genie in the bottle. We eventually dubbed ourselves “telepathetic” because it reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously. And also because we totally sucked ass at producing any evidence of our alleged psychedelic superpowers on command.

I honesty don’t think that it’s hiding from us, though. The old saw about God not wanting to prove himself because to do so would rob us of the priceless opportunity to experience blind faith always sounded patently ridiculous to me, even as a kid. And the idea that we would have naturally evolved a useful ability that mysteriously keeps itself a secret is yet even more absurd than the faith thing, at least in my humble opinion. Frankly, I think that we just haven’t been clever enough yet. And we haven’t been very persistent.

Stanislav Grof documented reports of psychedelic telepathy back when LSD was still legal, although his findings didn’t quite add up to incontrovertible proof. Indeed, in his 1975 book Realms of the Human Unconscious, he remarked that, “The firm feeling of an LSD subject that he can read the minds of the persons present in the session or that he can tune in to people in other parts of the world is more frequently a self-deception than an objectively verifiable fact.”. Nevertheless, Grof determined that, “… an LSD subject can be unusually accurate in his awareness of the sitter’s ideation and emotions without even looking at him. Two individuals who have sessions at the same time can share many ideas or have parallel experiences without much verbal communication and interchange. In exceptional cases, a claim made by an LSD subject about telepathic contact with a distant person can be supported by objective evidence obtained by independent investigation.”. I find Grof’s comments especially inspiring, because it suggests that it might at least sometimes be possible to coax this stuff forward in an experimental setting. I often wonder what would have happened if the American government hadn’t suddenly freaked out and essentially shut down legitimate research of psychedelics all over the world. How much more might we know about ourselves today? What would the political implications be? I also think its a shame that emerging research institutions like MAPS have limited themselves to looking for novel ways to solve culturally recognized problems like PTSD and end-of-life anxiety. Not that those goals are in any way unworthy. It’s just that there’s so much potentially revolutionary stuff we could probably find out pretty easily at this point, if we were legally allowed to look into it.

Fortunately, there’s no really effective way to suppress grassroots research. Since any one of us could make an important discovery at any time, I think that anyone who’s even remotely interested in these matters ought to make the effort to familiarize themselves with the basic principles of good experimental protocol. That way you’ll be ready and you’ll know what to do the next time that you’re randomly struck by telepathic lightning. Often it’s just common sense stuff. I mean how much more impressive would my Burning Man story be if we had each silently written down what our researchers looked like and then compared notes, rather than introducing the chance to influence each other’s perceptions by describing what we thought we had seen out loud?

I would very much like to contribute to the ongoing dialog myself, but it’s been a few years since I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with telepathy research directly, mainly because my friend stopped taking psychedelics and I haven’t met anybody else that I’ve felt compelled to get into that kind of intimate work with yet. For what it’s worth I will say that the Teafaerie’s preliminary observations strongly suggest that resonance plays an important role in the manifestation of collective consciousness in general. Which is to say that I think it’s more common between people who are especially “in tune” with one another. This is probably why its so often reported between parents and children, lovers, twins, and people who spend a lot of time practicing coordinated activities together, like soldiers, bandmates, and members of sports teams. I think listening to the same music helps, too. As does taking the same substance at roughly the same time.

I also think that there are at least a few other major factors at play. Like synchronicity, for instance, which I totally don’t have the time or inclination to even start getting into right now. And the entities seen in shared visions might actually turn out to be “real” in some sense. (Although nothing is ever going to convince me that psychedelic researchers from hyperspace would need to wear glasses.) These kinds of experiences pose fundamental questions about the nature of mind. And so far, the more that I’ve come to (think that I) understand about what that really means, the more profoundly mysterious it all becomes to me.

I doubt that anybody will ever truly figure it out. But I do think that it’s worth researching. And the telepathy phenomenon is a good place to start, because it might have a practical upshot. I mean, if we could conclusively prove that our minds are not totally separate from one another, maybe we’d all start being a little bit more kind.