How Stanislav Grof Helped Launch the Dawn of a New Psychedelic Research Era
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Next week, the brightest lights of the psychedelic cognoscenti will gather in San Jose, California. Leaving swirls of tracer visions in their wakes, they will converge from around the world at an incongruously bland Holiday Inn, 50 miles south of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that once served as the pulsing capital of Psychedelistan. There, several hundred turned-on and tuned-in doctors, psychologists, artists and laypeople will participate in the annual conference of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). For four days, they will explore -- through workshops and lectures, nothing more -- the widening gamut of clinical inquiry into the uses of the psychedelic experience, a global resurgence of which has led to hopeful talk of a "psychedelic revival."
After decades of psychedelic deep freeze, such talk is finally more than just wishful thinking. A skim of the conference agenda offers a tantalizing glimpse into the newly bubbling world of clinical psychedelic research. UCLA Medical professor Charles Grob will speak about his work using psilocybin to treat anxiety in late-stage cancer patients. Psychologist Allan Ajaya will share findings from his research in LSD-assisted myofascial pain therapy. Other speakers will address possible psychedelic-based cures for alcoholism, addiction, depression, migraines, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Each will represent a different corner in a promising field newly awakened. From North America to the Middle East, recent years have seen a rising interest into the medicinal possibilities of MDMA, LSD, DMT, and other drugs now shaking off decades of government-imposed clinical hibernation.
Since 1986, MAPS has been agitating for this overdue renaissance, spearheading and publicizing efforts to legalize and de-stigmatize research involving schedule-1 drugs designed to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. As the outfit's slogan has it, "We put the M.D. back in MDMA." It is a testament to the organization's work that this year's conference, "Psychedelic Science in the 21st Century," not only features a multinational cast of active researchers, but also caters to an increasingly interested public: tickets for many of the workshops sold out a month in advance.
For most Americans, the only familiar name on the MAPS 2010 speakers list is the Oprah-approved, integrative-health brand name, Dr. Andrew Weil. But Weil hardly enjoys rock-star status at conferences dedicated to the present state and future of pioneering psychedelic research. As detailed in Don Lattin's new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Weil's main historical contribution to the field was negative and came nearly 50 years ago: As an undergraduate snitch, it was Weil's articles for the Crimson that got Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) thrown out of Harvard, thus putting the kibosh on the university's psilocybin project.
One of the most significant figures attending the conference in San Jose is a man largely unknown to the general public. Years before Leary made headlines for his Ivy League adventures, and years before Ken Kesey held the first acid parties in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a young doctor named Stanislav Grof was conducting rigorous clinical experiments involving LSD in the most unlikely of places: a government lab in the capital of communist Czechoslovakia. It was there, at Prague's Psychiatric Research Institute in the 1950s, that Grof began more than half-a-century of pioneering research into non-ordinary states of consciousness. While he is frequently marginalized in, if not completely left out of, popular psychedelic histories, it is not for any lack of contribution to the field. "If I am the father of LSD," Albert Hoffman once said, "Stan Grof is the godfather."
With psychedelic research poised for a mainstream resurgence, the time seems right to begin giving the godfather his due.
Stanislav Grof had just completed his medical studies at Prague's Charles University when he caught a life-changing break. It was 1956, and one of his professors, a brain specialist named George Roubicek, had ordered a batch of LSD-25 from the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, where Albert Hoffman first synthesized the compound in 1943. Roubicek had read the Zurich psychiatrist Werner Stoll's 1947 account of the LSD experience and was curious to test it out himself and on his students and patients, largely to study the drug's effects on electric brain waves, Roubicek's specialty. When he asked for volunteers, Grof raised his hand.
The subsequent experience assured Grof's place in history by making him among the first handful of people to enjoy what might be called a modern trip, in which the psychedelic state is matched with electronic effects of the kind that have defined the experience for generations of recreational acidheads, from Merry Pranksters to Fillmore hippies to lollipop-sucking ravers.
Roubicek's experiment involved placing Grof in a dark room, administering a large dose of LSD (around 250 millionths of a gram) and turning on a stroboscopic white light oscillating at various, often frenetic, frequencies. Needless to say, nothing like the experience was otherwise available in 1950s Czechoslovakia, or anywhere else, for that matter. That first introduction to LSD -- a "divine thunderbolt" -- set the course for Grof's lifework. He had found, he thought, a majestic shortcut on Freud's "royal road to the unconscious."
"This combination [of the light and the drug]," Grof later said, "evoked in me a powerful mystical experience that radically changed my personal and professional life. Research of the heuristic, therapeutic, transformative, and evolutionary potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness became my profession, vocation, and personal passion."
In medical school during the second half of the '50s, Grof underwent dozens of LSD sessions and became one of a handful of turned-on young people in the communist world. Upon his graduation in 1960, Grof began full-time clinical work when he was fortuitously assigned to Prague's Psychiatric Research Institute, which included a newly launched Psychedelic Research Center. Among his new colleagues was a young doctor named Milos Vojtechovsky, with whom Grof had conducted his earliest experiments as a medical student. In 1958, the duo employed Benactyzin, high doses of which are hallucinogenic, as a way to induce the psychotic state associated with acute alcohol withdrawal. In 1959, they wrote an LSD-related study of the brain's serotonergic system, titled, "Serotonin and Its Significance for Psychiatry." As professional colleagues in the early 1960s, Grof and Vojtechovsky would co-publish nearly two dozen pioneering papers on clinical experiments employing LSD and other psychedelics, including a three-part study on LSD's clinical history, biochemistry and pharmacology.
Until 1961, this research involved Sandoz-supplied LSD. But Grof saw no reason why Czech scientists shouldn't be producing a native supply. Fatefully situated approximately 200 miles from Prague at this time was the Czech pharmaceutical company Spofa, whose chemists were talented synthesizers of various ergot alkaloids. Grof put in a request for the company begin producing LSD; a request quickly approved by communist authorities. Soon thereafter began production of the only pharmaceutically pure LSD in the eastern bloc. (Sandoz was still producing the only pure LSD in the West.)
The early weeks of Czechoslovak LSD production were not without problems. As Spofa cranked up its line for the powerful psychedelic, its laboratory employees would sometimes accidentally absorb the compound through their fingertips, much as Albert Hoffman did when he inadvertently made his famous discovery. Whenever this happened, it was standard practice at the time to inject the subject with Thorazine and throw them into the nearest locked hospital ward. This often made a bad situation worse, and Spofa frantically turned to Grof for answers. The young doctor happily lectured them on the importance of "set and setting" in the psychedelic experience. "I assured them that there was no reason for alarm if someone was intoxicated by LSD," Grof later wrote. "They were advised to have a special, quiet room where the intoxicated individual could spend the rest of the day listening to music in the company of a good friend."
Spofa brass took Grof's advice. When a 19-year-old Spofa lab assistant experienced a substantial "professional intoxication," she was placed in a comfortable room with a colleague and music. When the drug wore off, the woman reported having "the time of her life."
As Grof rose through the ranks at the Psychiatric Institute, his research increasingly involved using LSD in tandem with traditional Freudian psychoanalysis, in which Grof earned his Ph.D from the Czech Academy of Sciences in 1965. His dissertation was titled, "LSD and Its Use in Psychiatric Clinical Practice." When Grof completed his Freudian training, he had nearly a decade of experience with LSD. At 34, he was also full of paradigm-shifting ambition, having decided that psychedelics "used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy."
It was a heady time for any young Czech with a head full of big ideas. In 1965, Czechoslovakia was then in the midst of a political and cultural thaw known as the Prague Spring. A relaxation of state control and communist mores was encouraging new forms of artistic and political expression. Filmmakers associated with Czech New Wave produced exuberant films; the cafes and theaters became hubs of a thriving youth subculture, which celebrated Allen Ginsberg "King of May" when he visited Prague in May 1965. Had the trajectory been allowed to continue, it is easy to imagine a psychedelic Czech youth culture taking form, just as it did in the United States, with Grof as its leader.
Alas, Moscow saw where the Prague Spring was heading, and crushed the flowering under the treads of Red Army tanks. But by the time the Russians rolled into Prague in August 1968, the country's most experienced psychedelic researcher was long gone. The year before, Grof had been offered a professorship at the University of Maryland. He arrived in America during the Summer of Love in possession of one of the world's deepest LSD research resumes.
Soon after his arrival in the U.S., Grof was named chief of research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Again, it was a fortuitous placement. Among his new peers, an ordained minister and fellow psychedelic pioneer named Walter Pahnke, who had conceived of the famous "Good Friday Experiment" with Tim Leary and Huston Smith while at Harvard in the early 1960s. At the time of Grof's arrival, Pahnke was engaged in promising research into LSD therapy as a way to mitigate mortal anxiety among the terminally ill. Before Pahnke's untimely death in 1971, he had found "dramatic improvement" among a third of his subjects, and "moderate improvement" in another third.
While the Center was a stimulating environment to continue his research, Grof's Maryland work constituted the lesser half of his activities during the late 1960s. He also traveled regularly to Menlo Park, California, where he participated in a working group led by the founder of humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow. Grof joined a coterie of Maslow's colleagues and students working to build on the foundation of humanistic psychology, most famous for its positing of a hierarchy of needs.
Like so many other forward thinkers of the decade, psychedelic experiences had touched Maslow deeply. He had come to believe that the system he developed in the '50s and early '60s was formed around a stunted view of the psyche. With his humanistic psychology, Maslow had managed to go beyond Freud and Skinner (the father of behaviorism), but he did not go as far enough. The spiritual revolution of the decade, of which the LSD experience was central, had thrown the limits of humanistic psychology into sharp relief. It was, Maslow and Grof believed, still too trapped in Freudian verbal therapy, still too accepting of the idea of an individual psyche contained in one life, one skull, one personal history, one culture.
"The renaissance of interest in Eastern spiritual philosophies, various mystical traditions, meditation, ancient and aboriginal wisdom, as well as the widespread psychedelic experimentation during the stormy 1960s," Grof later wrote, "made it absolutely clear that a comprehensive and cross-culturally valid psychology had to include observations from such areas as mystical states; cosmic consciousness; psychedelic experiences; trance phenomena; creativity; and religious, artistic, and scientific inspiration."
As Maslow and Grof mapped out this new and expanded understanding of the psyche, they turned to the insights of Carl Jung, the brilliant Freudian renegade who posited the existence of non-material archetypal-mythological realms that contain the entire histories, collective wisdom, and totemic icons of every civilization since the dawn of time. Along with a belief in these realms, Maslow and Grof were convinced they were accessible to everyone, especially during non-ordinary states of consciousness such as those induced by a hefty dose of psychedelics.
"Experiences occurring in psychedelic sessions cannot be described in terms of the narrow and superficial conceptual model used in academic psychiatry and psychology, which is limited to biology, postnatal biography, and the Freudian individual unconscious," Grof wrote of the insight behind transpersonal psychology. "Deep experiential work requires a vastly extended cartography of the psyche that includes important domains uncharted by traditional science."
Once the basic elements of this new psychological school were in place, it was time to name it. Maslow wanted to call the new psychedelically inspired school "transhumanistic."
Grof demurred, preferring the term "transpersonal psychology." The name stuck.
Figures associated with Maslow and Grof's coterie soon launched the Association of Transpersonal Psychology and assembled an editorial team for the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Around the same time, Robert Frager began laying the groundwork for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, which remains the leading center of transpersonal training.
Just as transpersonal psychology was being institutionalized, LSD research was being systematically shut down by the government. At the end of the 1960s, Grof's laboratory in Maryland housed the last surviving FDA-approved psychedelic clinical research program in the United States. In 1971, Maryland's research, too, was ordered closed following the classification of LSD as a Schedule-I drug, defined as being habit-forming and having "no recognized medicinal value."
With little interest in running a lab without access to LSD, Grof followed the action and moved west. In 1973, he began a 15-year stretch as scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. There, overlooking the Pacific ocean and against the constant rumble of rolling surf, Grof spent the next two years synthesizing his thoughts on nearly two decades of LSD therapy. The result was Realms Of The Human Unconscious: Observations From LSD Research, published in 1975.
By this time, officially sanctioned psychedelic research already seemed like a distant memory. For a new generation that graduated college after the door had been slammed shut on clinical psychedelic studies, Grof's book was a window into a world that might have been. Among those who found inspiration in the book was a young college student named Rick Doblin, who would later found the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the possibility of a return to a rational discussion of drug policy and psychedelic research became more remote than ever. Grof was among those who kept the flame alive. Around the time of Reagan's first Inauguration, Grof published LSD Psychotherapy, in which he expanded on the now codified transpersonal understanding of the psyche. Grof stressed the importance of two previously neglected realms of experience that psychedelic experiences can tap into where traditional therapy cannot: the "perinatal" (birth moment) and "transpersonal" (archetypical). Coming to terms with these aspects of the psyche, believed Grof, is the key to psycho-spiritual health.
"When the content of the perinatal level of the unconscious surfaces into consciousness and is adequately processed and integrated," Grof wrote, "it results in a radical personality change. The individual experiences a considerable decrease of aggressive tendencies and becomes more tolerant and compassionate toward others. [They also experience an increase in] the ability to enjoy life and draw satisfaction from simple situations such as everyday activity, eating, love-making, nature, and music."
Happy, well-adjusted people, Grof believed, also lead to happy, well-adjusted societies.
"One of the most remarkable consequences of various forms of transpersonal experiences is spontaneous emergence and development of genuine humanitarian and ecological interests and need to take part in activities aimed at peaceful coexistence and well-being of humanity," Grof wrote. "This is based on an almost cellular understanding that any boundaries in the Cosmos are relative and arbitrary and that each of us is, in the last analysis, identical and commeasurable with the entire fabric of existence. As a result of these experiences, individuals tend to develop feelings that they are planetary citizens and members of the human family before belonging to a particular country or a specific racial, social, ideological, political, or religious group."
Such sentiments were never so far removed from mainstream culture as during the first few years of the age of Reagan. Buffered from the harder edges of the 1980s in Big Sur, Grof kept working, increasingly with his wife and creative partner, Christina. In 1985, he published Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence, in which he expanded on the promise and power of transpersonal psychotherapy employing psychedelic drugs.
By the time the book's second edition was published in 1994, a mini-psychedelic revival was underway on the West Coast. Grof had earned enough stripes to be an acid elder statesman to a generation of kids dancing to techno on ecstasy and acid. But he did not embrace the role. While Tim Leary rolled around in mutual embrace with the San Francisco rave and cyberculture scenes, Grof maintained his distance, playing the role of austere friend of psychedelics from the old school. "The hectic atmosphere of…crowded rock concerts or discos, and noisy social gatherings are certainly not settings conducive to productive self-exploration and safe confrontation with the difficult aspects of one's unconscious," Grof stiffly wrote in a 1994 update of his essay "Crisis Intervention in Situations Related to Unsupervised Use of Psychedelics."
Grof had in any case by then found a way to continue his research without banned substances. Throughout the 1980s, he had been coming to the conclusion that perinatal and transpersonal experiences were not dependent on the use of psychedelics. LSD may have launched Grof's mind into cosmic orbit. But once there, like so many who passed through the psychedelic crucible, he had come to believe they were no longer needed. He even developed a system to prove it: Holotropic Breathing.
Grof's lifework treats individual and social neuroses through the exploration of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Whether these states are achieved through the structured hyperventilation of Holotropic Breathing, or through psychedelic drugs, for Grof the stakes remain the same.
"If we continue using the old strategies that have caused the current global crisis and which are in their consequences destructive and self-destructive," Grof recently wrote, "it might lead to annihilation of modern civilization and possibly even the human species. However, if a sufficient number of people undergo a process of inner psychospiritual transformation and attain a higher level of awareness, we might in the future reach a situation when we will deserve the name, which we have so proudly given to our species: Homo sapiens."
This, in a nutshell, is the same cosmically ambitious hope expressed by the psychedelic pioneers of a half-century ago. Most of those men and women have long since given up the dream, moved on to other things, or died. Stanislav Grof is among the very few still here. Judging by the hopeful tone of next week's MAPS conference, the world of medicine may finally be ready to catch back up with him.