The Effects of Psychedelic Experience on Language Functioning
From: PSYCHEDELICS, The Uses and Implications of Hallucinogenic Drugs
edited by Bernard Aaronson and Humphry Osmond, Doubleday & Company, 1970.
© Aaronson & Osmond.
A. J. Ayer (1946, p. 65) once claimed, "... we are unable,
in our everyday language, to describe the properties of sense-contents
with any great precision, for lack of the requisite symbols...."
Ayer's statement about normal, everyday perception has even greater
application when chemically altered perception is considered.
The difficulties subjects have in describing their experiences
are compounded by the difficulties experimenters often have in
interpreting these reports in terms of some organizational structure.
One of the more successful attempts to organize subjective reports
of psychedelic experience has been made by R. E. L. Masters and
Jean Houston (1966). Having guided and observed 206 subjects through
a large number of LSD and peyote sessions, Masters and Houston
proposed the existence of four levels of mental functioning in
the psychedelic state: sensory, recollective-analytic, symbolic,
At the first, or sensory, level, the subject may report a changed
awareness of the body, unusual ways of experiencing space and
time, heightened sense impressions, synesthesia ("feeling
sounds," "hearing color"), andwith the eyes
closedvivid visual imagery. Experiences at the sensory level
tend to "decondition" a subject, to loosen his habitual
conceptions, and to ease the rigidity of his past imprinting.
At the second, or recollective-analytic, level, the subject's
reactions become more emotionally intense. He may relive periods
of his life. He may formulate insights into himself, his work,
and his personal relationships.
Only 40 per cent of Masters and Houston's subjects reached the
third, or symbolic, level. At this level, visual imagery generally
involves history and legend, or the subject may recapitulate the
evolutionary process, developing from primordial protoplasm to
man. He may also embark upon a "ritual of passage" and
imagine himself participating in a baptismal ceremony or a puberty
Eleven per cent of Masters and Houston's subjects reached the
fourth, or integral, level, at which religious or mystical experiences
occur. Masters and Houston have described the religious experience
as a confrontation with "the Ground of Being"; they
contrast it with mystical experience, which they see as a dissolution,
as a merging of the individual with the energy field of the universe.
One woman related, "All around and passing through me was
the Light, a trillion atomized crystals shimmering in the blinding
The Evolution of Language
Like psychedelic experience, human language processes may be studied
at four different levels. The development of social language begins
at the approximate age of nine months, with the acquisition of
a simple listening vocabulary (Lewis, 1959). By one year, most
children have spoken their first word. In the American culture,
two other forms of language-reading and writing-are usually introduced
when the child enters school, although some children acquire these
before formal education begins. Speaking and writing are expressive,
and involve encoding one's experiences; listening and reading
are receptive, and require decoding of another person's attempts
to communicate. Speaking and listening have developmental priority
over the visual activities of writing and reading.
Language may be defined as a structured system of arbitrary vocal
sounds and sound sequences, or a system of written or printed
symbols that represent vocal sounds. A language system is used
in social, interpersonal communication, and rather exhaustively
catalogues the objects, events, and processes in the human environment.
The origins of oral language go back over a million years. Primitive
man kept no written records and lost the words he uttered in time
and space. Writing started only a few thousand years ago, when
man developed hieroglyphics and ideographs to represent visible
objects. Among the cultures bordering the Mediterranean, these
standardized sets of pictures gave way to phonetic alphabets,
in which the written symbol stands not for an object, but for
The alphabet restructured not only man's method of communicating,
but also his very conception of the time-space milieu. The alphabet
arrested words in spatial rather than temporal segments, and literate
human cultures began to conceive of the universe in terms of linear
space diagrams as well as temporal cycles. The day-night cycle,
the life-death cycle, and other recurring events gave way in importance
to conceiving events as historical, linear, and exhibiting cause-
For several centuries, the development of the alphabet affected
most people indirectly in the cultures where it was used. Written
language was difficult to master; its utilization was often reserved
for scribes, philosophers, and priests. The invention of the printing
press and movable type made reading a common skill and, according
to Marshall McLuhan (1964), further exploded the tribal world
and led to the fragmentation of society and to the specialization
of mankind's functions. The priestly monopoly on knowledge and
power came to an end.
The technical and cultural achievements resulting from movable
type show the tremendous impact of literacy. However, the linear
structuring of rational life forced the Western world to regard
consciousness as sequential, and brought about its habit of investing
events with cause-effect relations. As Western man became dissociated
from the tribe and from direct experience, visual sequencing became
the key skill used in examining and storing the symbolic record
of his accomplishments.
Just as the voice-and-ear stage of language once gave way to what
Walter Ong (1967) has referred to as the "chirographic-typographic"
stage (dominated by the alphabet and the printing press), so this
stage is now giving way to an electronic stage. Television, telephone,
radio, phonograph, film and recording tape have reinstated the
importance of sound in communication. These media also convey
a sense of simultaneity in time and space. A new aural structure
is being superimposed upon the old visual structure of the chirographic-typographic
stage. As technology unites the scattered human cultures into
a new solidarity, the contemporary individual must have all cultures
present within him simultaneously in order to be realized as a
At the same time that the electronic stage is extending man's
exploration outside the body, it is creating a desire for exploration
of the individual's inner world. One example is the widespread
interest in psychedelic substances. Many Americans, having ingested
these chemicals, echo McLuhan's and Ong's theories. They state
that their psychedelic episodes bring about "a sense of simultaneity
in time and space," and "a sense of solidarity with
all the people in the world." Others gather into drug or
"hippie" subcultures, in which tribal rites are enacted,
in which bright Indian clothes and primitive body markings are
worn, and in which an intense sense of community often develops.
A limited number of attempts have been made to investigate the
effects of psychedelic experience on either receptive language
(listening and reading) or expressive language (speaking and writing).
The four levels of psychedelic experience (sensory, recollective-analytic,
symbolic, integral) provide an organizational structure in which
this area may be explored and discussed.
Trouton and Eysenck (1961) have pointed out that psychedelic experience
is influenced not only by factors related to drug administration,
but by personality, physiology, set, and setting. In their account,
they also mention "suggestion" and "reinforcement
of responses by the experimenter," which suggests the importance
of language in determining how a subject reacts.
The ritual developed by the Native American Church illustrates
the use of language to produce a positive set and setting for
the ingestion of peyote. A ceremonial leader, the head chief,
initiates the singing of songs and co-ordinates requests by individuals
for special prayers. The ritual is so arranged and so coordinated
to the needs of the communicants that the maximum possible likelihood
of a positive spiritual experience is enhanced (Flattery and Pierce,
Language, however, may also be used to develop a negative set
and setting. Jean Houston (1967) has described one of her initial
observations of LSD administration. The subject was told by the
psychiatrist that he would have "a terrible, terrible experience"
filled with "strong anxiety and delusions." The drug
was administered in an antiseptic hospital room with several observers
in white coats watching him. As the effects came on, the psychiatrist
asked such questions as, "Is your anxiety increasing?"
At the end of the experiment, the subject was in a state of panic.
The psychiatrist announced to the group that LSD is indeed a "psychotomimetic"
substance, which induces psychotic behavior.
Listening is the receptive process by which aural language assumes
meaning. As listening involves attending to a stimulus, the act
often includes a commitment to respond in some way to the messages
that are received. The Native American Church communicants commit
themselves to a positive experience while the unfortunate subjects
of poorly handled LSD experiments commit themselves to a negative
experience. In both cases, language plays a key role in determining
which way the commitment will turn.
A vivid description of a psychedelic session has been given by
Alan Watts (1962). This description demonstrates how the quality
of what is listened to may change as the listener shifts from
the sensory to the recollective-analytic, symbolic, and integral
I am listening to the music of an organ.... The organ seems quite
literally to speak. There is no use of the vox humana stop, but
every sound seems to issue from a vast human throat, moist with
This is the sensory level of the psychedelic experience. Perceptual
changes have transformed the organ music into a human voice. Sense
impressions other than aural take form as Watts speaks of "a
vast human throat, wet with saliva."
I am listening to a priest chanting the Mass, and a choir of nuns
responding. His mature, cultivated voice rings with the serene
authority of the One, Holy, Catholic, an-d Apostolic Church, of
the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints, and the nuns
respond naively it seems, with childlike, utterly innocent devotion.
But listening again, I can hear the priest "putting on"
his voice, hear the inflated, pompous balloon, the studiedly unctuous
tones of a master deceptionist who has the poor little nuns, kneeling
in their stalls completely cowed. Listen deeper. The nuns are
not cowed at all. They are playing possum. With just a little
stiffening, the limp gesture of bowing nuns turns into the gesture
of the closing claw. With too few men to go around, the nuns know
what is good for them: how to bend and survive. (p. 37)
This is the recollective-analytic level, at which memories and
insights often occur. Watts is listening to a recording of the
Mass, but suddenly perceives a pompous quality to the priest's
tones. Going deeper into the analysis of what he hears, Watts
discovers that the nuns' response displays more than obedienceit
is their shrewd way of playing the game of survival.
But this profoundly cynical view of things is only an intermediate
stage.... In the priest's voice I hear down at the root the primordial
howl of the beast in the jungle, but it has been inflected, complicated,
refined, and textured with centuries of culture.... At first,
crude and unconcealed, the cry for food or mate, or just noise
for the fun of it, making the rocks echo. Then rhythm to enchant,
then changes of tone to plead or threaten. Then words to specify
the need, to promise and bargain. And then, much later, the gambits
of indirection. The feminine stratagem of stooping to conquer,
the claim to superior worth in renouncing the world for the spirit,
the cunning of weakness proving stronger than the might of muscle-and
the meek inheriting the earth. (p. 38)
This is the psychedelic experience's symbolic stage. The priest's
voice reflects the evolutionary process; the nuns' response echoes
As I listen then, I can hear in that one voice the simultaneous
presence of all the levels of man's history, as of all the stages
of life before man. Every step in the game becomes as clear as
the rings in a severed tree.... I, as an adult, am also back there
alone in the dark, just as the primordial howl is still present
beneath the sublime modulations of the chant.... Down and at last
outout of the cosmic maze..., I feel, with a peace so deep
that it sings to be shared with all the world, that at last I
belong, that I have returned to the home beyond home.... The sure
foundation upon which I had sought to stand has turned out to
be the center from which I seek. (p. 39)
This is the integral stage of the psychedelic experience. Watts
sees himself in the voice of the priest and in all the precursors
of that voice. His "home beyond home" and "sure
foundation" is the very center of his being.
Reading, the assigning of meaning to perceived printed symbols,
also plays a key role in some psychedelic sessions. In one experiment
(Jarvik et al., 1955), subjects ingested one hundred micrograms
of LSD and demonstrated an increase in their ability to quickly
cancel out words on a page of standardized material, but a decreased
ability to cancel out individual letters. The drug seemed to facilitate
the perceptions of meaningful language units while it interfered
with the visual perception of non-meaningful ones. Corroborative
experimental data are lacking, but a number of clinical cases
suggest that if the meaning of printed symbols happens to dovetail
with the ongoing psychedelic experience, the symbols will be perceived
quickly. If their meaning does not happen to tie in with the experience,
the words may not be perceived at all.
One subject became fascinated by a newspaper headline and reportedly
was able to read the entire article at a distance of thirty feet
(Newland, 1962). Another subject, who became interested in studying
famous paintings after ingesting thirty milligrams of psilocybin,
assertedly lost his reading ability entirely while under the influence
of the drug. (1)
In college, I had studied central nervous system dysfunction and
knew that psycholexia is a condition in which a person has difficulty
attaching meaning to printed symbols. I experienced a similar
condition after the psilocybin began to take effect.
I glanced at my watch but could make no sense out of the numerical
symbols. I looked at an art magazine The pictures were beautiful
almost three dimensional. However, the script was a jumble of
The same subject, near the end of his "psilocybin high,"
reported still another alteration in the reading process:
Earlier, I had tasted an orange and found it the most intense,
delightful taste sensation I had ever experienced. I tried reading
a magazine as I was "coming down," and felt the same
sensual delight in moving my eye over the printed page as I had
experienced when eating the orange.
The words stood out in three dimensions. Reading had never been
such a sheer delight and such a complete joy. My comprehension
was excellent. I quickly grasped the intent of the author and
felt that I knew exactly what meaning he had tried to convey.
In the former instance, motivation for reading was low, since
the subject was interested in studying art prints. In the latter
episode, the pleasure of eating an orange permeated the act of
reading a magazines which then became a delightful experience.
The cases cited above both involved the sensory level of psychedelic
experience. Masters and Houston (1966) presented an intriguing
example of a subject who visualized a reading experience while
at the recollective-analytic level of his LSD session:
I recalled detail that under ordinary conditions I could not possibly
have remembered including the address on an envelope of a letter
that a friend had sent me some years beforean important letter,
since it had great significance for me during my analysis. I saw
the envelope in front of me, in my mind's eye, recalled the handwriting
and recited the street number and street. (A few days later I
went to an attic where I had old letters put away, dug into a
dust-laden box, and took out crumpled and yellowing old papers.
There7 among them, I found the envelope, just as I had recalled
it, and the details of the address were correct, entirely correct.)
P. G. Stafford and B. H. Golightly (1967, pp. 140-41) have cited
the account of a student who utilized the recollective-analytic
level to practical advantages learning enough German in a week
to enroll for an advanced course in the subject:
I hadn't even gotten around to picking up a textbook, but I did
have a close friend who knew German well and who said he was willing
to "sit in" while I took the drug and try to teach me
The thing that impressed me at first was the delicacy of the language.
... Before long, I was catching on even to the umlauts. Things
were speeding up like mad, and there were floods of associations.
... Memory, of course, is a matter of association and boy was
I ever linking up to things! I had no difficulty recalling words
he had given me-in fact, I was eager to string them together.
In a couple of hours after that, I was even reading some simple
German, and it all made sense.
By the time the student finished the LSD session, he had "fallen
in love with German." He secured the original German text
and an English translation of Mann's Doctor Faustus. By
the time he had finished the novel, he found that he was scarcely
referring to the English version. He also discovered that in having
read Doctor Faustus, he had developed a feeling for grammar
structure and word endings that was "almost intuitive."
When he registered for the second-year college course in German
the following week, the instructor expressed skepticism when he
heard that the student was self-taught. Upon testing him, however,
it was evident that the student's German reading comprehension
was more than adequate, and he was allowed to enroll for the course.
Also at the recollective-analytic level fall the examples of renewed
spiritual inspiration from reading of sacred literature. Biblical
passages or religious terms formerly meaningless sometimes acquire
vivid meanings for many readers. Like the individual who through
conversion experience suddenly finds himself in possession of
the meaning of the term "salvation," so the LSD subject
may find similar terms illuminated for him (Leary and Clark, 1963
An example may be cited of an individual who found significant
meaning in a biblical passage during a session with morning-glory
Upon opening my eyes, I found that I was facing the bookcase.
The first book that I perceived was the Holy Bible. I seized it
and flung it open. Strangely, the smooth, burnished pages felt
like human skin. I fondled, kissed, and caressed the pages. For
the first time in several hours, I had found some degree of tranquillity
I looked at the page I had selected and found that my finger was
directly above Ezekiel 11:24. The words of this verse, as well
as the one directly following it, described my liberation from
the more terrifying aspects of the psychedelic experience as well
as the importance of communicating my experience to others. They
read, "Then the vision that I had seen went up from me. And
I told the exiles all the things that the Lord had showed me."
As I read on, I found a new interpretation for the twelfth chapter
of Ezekiel. The prophet spoke of a "rebellious house"
and of peopleperhaps in need of psychedelic substanceswho
have "ears to hear and hear not." The injunction of
Ezekiel 12:13 is to "eat your bread with quaking, and drink
water with trembling," an appropriate description of the
consumption of psychedelics. Ezekiel 12:23-24 states that "the
days are at hand and the fulfillment of every vision." Everything
I read under the spell of the morning-glory seeds became directed
toward the psychedelic experience.
Once again, in this instance, there was an integration of the
act of reading into the ongoing psychedelic experience. As a result,
a number of "connections" were discovered that would
have eluded the subject had he not ingested morning-glory seeds.
This phenomenon is surprisingly common among frequent LSD users;
their belief in the direct interrelations among most of the events
of their lives may well influence their behavior and their view
of the universe.
The reading process is rarely associated with the third or fourth
levels of psychedelic experience, but some individuals have been
catapulted into a deeply moving symbolic or integral episode following
a chance glimpse of a line of Hebrew script or of an Egyptian
hieroglyphic. In other cases, a line of print has occurred at
the end of a segment of the experience and has seemed to summarize
it. One subject reported such an episode at the symbolic level
during a mescaline session:
I was propelled back into time, back into the primeval jungle.
I saw two savages stalking each other in the underbrush. Each
savage carried a bow and arrow. Each was prepared to kill the
other upon sight. Blood was on their minds-murder was in their
Suddenly, each saw the other. Each gasped in surprise. Each dropped
his bow. The two bows fell together on the ground, forming a mandala.
The arrows fell upon the mandala, dividing it into four sections.
The savages fell upon each otherbut in an embrace rather than
in an assault. As they strolled into the jungle to enjoy their
newly discovered companionship, the mandala turned into a white
button. Upon the button, in red and blue, appeared the words,
"Make love, not war."
During one of my own psilocybin experiences I had an unusual visualization.
I pictured a whirlwind carrying away all the words, letters, numbers,
and verbal symbols that had acculturated and conditioned me throughout
the years. One might say that my session was a form of non-verbal
training, a dramatic confrontation with naked events that reminded
me not only of the awareness encountered among preliterate tribes,
but also of Alfred Korzybski's writings in the field of general
semantics ( 1933 ).
Korzybski considered man's consciousness of the abstraction process
to be the most effective safeguard against semantic problems (such
as confusing words with objects) and the key to further human
evolution. Consciousness of abstraction was defined by Korzybski
as an "awareness that in our process of abstracting we have
left out characteristics." An individual apprehends
himself and his world fully and accurately to the degree that
he continually translates higher-order abstractions back to the
level of concrete experience. An individual is "sane"
to the extent that he becomes experientially aware of the discrepancy
between conceptualization and sense impressions. Developmentally,
man (both as a species and as an individual) progresses from the
preliterate stage (in which he is enmeshed in concrete experience)
to the early literate stage (in which he confuses words with things
and becomes split off from non-verbal reality) to a fully developed
literate stage (in which he uses the printed word but does not
confuse it with the object for which it stands).
Robert Mogar (1965c) has stated that, at its best, the psychedelic
state can permit the individual to evaluate with some detachment
both the structure of his semantic framework (i.e., its similarity
to reality) and his semantic reactions. These two kinds of learning
were strongly recommended by Korzybski as the most effective means
of increasing one's consciousness of the abstracting process.
Richard Marsh (1965) has described how, under LSD, "we seem
to come up against that part of our inner world where meanings
are made, where the patterning process operates in its pure form."
He has further noted that, semantically, the condition of being
absolutely present to the outer and the inner reality has at least
two advantages. First, it allows a person to tune in on that feedback,
both external and internal, that enables him to correct his own
errors in encoding. He is able to reduce the noise level in the
various communication systems in which he is involved by re-encoding
his message streams until they convey the meanings that he intends
them to convey. Secondly, it allows a person to inhabit the world
of the actual, the world of fact, instead of the unreal and empty
world of the prefabricated abstraction. It allows him to experience
the world instead of merely to think about it, and perhaps to
begin to live in it at last.
Marsh's claim that a new level of reality is opened up by the
psychedelics is a controversial one. It is a further step in the
perpetual dialogue concerning language and reality. As long as
men have reflected about their world, this basic issue has divided
them. Some men have regarded man's language as a straightforward
reflection of reality. Others have looked upon language as a reducing
valve imposed by the limitations of man's consciousness upon the
unlimited varieties of his internal and external world (Krippner,
1965). Aldous Huxley (1959, p. 22) has described the role that
verbal and written symbols play in helping mankind to utilize
this limited consciousness:
To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness
man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems
and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual
is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition
into which he or she has been bornthe beneficiary inasmuch
as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people's
experience, the victim insofar as it confirms him in the belief
that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils
his sense of reality so that he is all too apt to take his concepts
for data, his words for actual things.
The psychedelic session as non-verbal training represents a method
by which an individual can attain a higher level of linguistic
maturity and sophistication. On the other hand, some psychedelic
episodes have been reported in which an apparent regression took
place, in which language was concretized-the letters becoming
transformed into images and objects. One subject, while smoking
marijuana, looked at a magazine cover and reported a concretization
The magazine featured a picture story about Mexico, and the cover
featured large letters spelling out the name of that country.
As I looked at the letters, they turned into Aztec men and women.
They retained their shape as letters, but subtle shades and shadows
became eyes, heads, arms, and legs. That part wasn't so bad, but
when Atzecs began to move across the page, I quickly turned the
The concretization of letters has been put to artistic use by
illustrators throughout the centuries (Mahlow, 1963). For example,
Ferdinand Kriwet designed a mandala composed of nothing but several
hundred capital letters. Joshua Reichert produced another mandala
that consisted of several types of script. A number of contemporary
poster artists have publicized "acid rock" musical performances
by producing advertisements that fuse the letters with the pictures,
making the names of such groups as "The Grateful Dead"
and "The Byrds" an integral part of the over-all design,
thus combining the "medium" and the "message."
The "psychedelic poster" has, within a few years, become
an original art form (Masters and Houston, 1968).
The variety of effects that psychedelics have upon receptive language
functioning have at least one factor in common: they point up
the role that language as a "connecting system" plays
in verbal memory (Hastings, 1967). Electric brain stimulation
and hypnosis have been able to retrieve long-forgotten memories;
psychedelic drugs often produce similar effects, especially at
those periods of time when subjects are at the recollective-analytic
Physical shock and psychic trauma often lead to the forgetting
of verbal material or a regression in verbal functioning. In these
cases, the "connecting system" breaks down, just as
it does in certain episodes with psychedelics. Henri Michaux (1967)
has stated, "After an average dose of hashish, one is unfit
for reading." Other artists and writers, however, say that
they appreciate receptive language (e.g., listening to poetry,
reading novels ) even more when they are "high." A great
deal of research is needed to explore the variables that determine
what effects psychedelics have upon language as it connects one's
past memory with his present experience.
A number of investigators have reported a reduction or even an
absence of speech among LSD subjects. Some writers have suggested
that these drugs suppress activity in the cortical levels of the
brain, where the speech centers are located. J. H. Von Felsinger
and his associates (1956), for example, noted that there was "a
slowing down of speech and expression" with their LSD subjects,
none of whom were psychiatric patients. On the other hand, Morgens
Hertz, a Danish physician, described a patient whose long-standing
stuttering condition disappeared following LSD treatment (Stafford
& Golightly, 1967, p. 113). An American team of researchers
found that schizophrenic children became more communicative following
LSD treatment ( Bender, Goldschmidt, and Siva Sankar, 1956). As
with the other types of language, the alteration of expressive
language under LSD can take a variety of forms, depending on how
it happens to mesh with other aspects of the psychedelic experience.
One research team (Lennard, Jarvik, and Abramson, 1956) studied
the effects of LSD on group communication, using both an experimental
group of subjects and a control group. The subjects in the control
group increased their verbal output during the observation period,
while among those who had taken LSD there was a reduction in word
output. In addition, the subjects who took LSD asked more questions
and made more statements pertaining to orientation (e.g., "What's
happening?" "Where am I?") than those in the control
group. These findings are consistent with the typical reactions
of subjects at the sensory level when traditional timespace orientation
Another reason for reduced verbalization during psychedelic sessions
may be the presence of visual imagery. When an individual becomes
involved in "the retinal circus," he often loses interest
in speaking. Finally, relaxation and lethargy often mark a subject's
first experiences with the psychedelics. In these instances, the
speech muscles would be inoperative, and verbalization would be
reduced still further.
E. S. Tauber and M. R. Green (1959) have discussed the difficulty
in talking about visual imagery and trying to communicate it to
someone else. Not only is there difficulty in translating one's
own private world into meaningful public symbols, but there is
also a kaleidoscopic piling up of many different images and meanings.
Speech is the vocal expression of one's experiences and feelings
in verbal symbols; wherever communication involves much more than
language can adequately express, there is a high probability of
serious gaps, misunderstandings, and improper inferences. Tauber
and Green have stated, "... the communication of dream
material perhaps most strikingly illustrates the weakness of the
tool of language." Much the same could be said of psychedelic
experience at the sensory level; this may be another reason why
speech often is reduced during a subject's initial LSD experiences.
The description of visual imagery is not the only communication
problem that faces the LSD initiate. At the sensory level, there
is often an increased awareness of bodily feelings. Preliterate
tribes paid great attention to these feelings, but the American
culture generally ignores them, unless they are unpleasant. Those
words that most quickly come to mind during periods of acute bodily
awareness are "sick to my stomach," "pains in my
back," and "nagging headache." Once these words
become linked to what may be quite natural (and potentially pleasurable
) sensations, an individual may very well get sick, regurgitate,
and interpret the rest of his psychedelic session as unpleasant.
It is in this regard that the work of Russell Mason on internal
perception ( 1961) assumes importance. Although Mason's experiments
did not involve psychedelic drugs, they could serve as models
for what can eventually be done with such substances. He asked
subjects to specify where various kinds of feelings were located.
Love and friendliness, for example, were associated with the central
chest area, sexual feelings with the genital-pubic area. He concluded,
"... the ability of the individual to permit immediate
awareness of... non-cognitive internal perceptions appears
to be necessary for healthy psychological adjustment." His
data offer a possible physiological explanation for the body changes
that take place when drug subjects report feelings of "oceanic
love" or "strong sexual responses." They also suggest
that persons who are unable to allow this immediate awareness
to take place may be poor risks for LSD sessions.
Masters and Houston (1966) have reported statements from a number
of subjects who purportedly "felt" the interior of the
body during psychedelic experiments. One subject told about sensing
his "interior landscape," describing the "trees,
vines, streams, waterfalls, hills, and valleys" of the body.
Another described the sensation of blood flowing through his veins
as well as the receiving and transmitting operations of the nervous
system. All these reports characterize the first, or sensory,
level of psychedelic experience.
The verbal reports associated with the recollective-analytic and
symbolic levels are somewhat different. For example, one subject
at the recollective-analytic level reported the insight to Masters
and Houston, "I have never been in love with my own body.
In fact, I believe that a major emotional problem in my life is
that I have always disliked it." At the symbolic level, a
number of subjects experience bodily sensations in terms of a
mythic drama. One anthropologist reported going through a Haitian
transformation rite in which his body began to take on aspects
of a tiger ( Masters and Houston, 966, pp.76-78).
At the integral level, bodily sensations are also reported. One
of Masters and Houston's subjects had a mystical experience in
which he was "... overwhelmed by a bombardment of physical
sensations, by tangible sound waves both felt and seen,"
after which he "dissolved." He later stated, "Now
I understand what is meant by being a part of everything, what
is meant by sensing the body as dissolving."
A great deal of research is needed to correlate the data on bodily
sensations with the data on LSD. One important hypothetical formulation
that would be helpful in effecting this correlation was presented
by Gardner Murphy and Sidney Cohen in 1965. Murphy and Cohen suggested
that psychedelic drugs lower the threshold for internal sensations,
especially those from the digestive system, the sex organs, and
the striped muscles. As a result, body feelings emerge into self-consciousness,
and an individual may interpret the experience as one of "cosmic
love." Murphy and Cohen also hypothesized that there was
a direct relationship between certain physiological sensations
and such verbal reports as "entrance into the void."
In considering the effects of psychedelic substances upon speech,
attention could be paid not only to the physiological determinants
but to the psychological concomitants of the experience. One of
the most typical phenomena is the statement by the subject that
his experience has been ineffable, that it cannot be communicated
adequately to others. Some subjects assert that no words exist
to describe internal events such as those they have felt, and
that even if there were such words they would be devoid of significance
unless the listener himself had gone through the same experiences.
Richard Blum (1964) reported one man's reaction:
Really, when I first took LSD, I didn't know how to describe what
had happened. It was intense and important, very much so, but
there were no words for it. But after talking with others who
had taken it I could see that they were talking about the same
thing. They did have words for it"transcendental"
was oneand so I started using those words myself. An interesting
thing happened to my wife. After I gave her LSD she said very
little about it. For a whole month she hardly said a word about
her experience. But then I introduced her to some others who were
taking the drug, and it wasn't more than a few days before she
started talking a blue streak; you see, she'd learned how to talk
about it from them.
This explanation describes how one learns a language that signifies
to other users that one understands and has been through a psychedelic
experience. According to Blum, the language is shaped by the culture
of the speakers-in this case by the particular subgroup with which
the LSD user is socially affiliated and under whose auspices he
has taken the drug. This language is as much a sign of "togetherness"
and "belongingness" as it is a device for communicating
the content of an experience. It is not unusual that a number
of people in drug subcultures become frustrated when talking with
non-users; to the individual who has never undergone psychedelic
experience, the user's words are not understood as affirmations
that one is a particular kind of person or a fellow member of
an important in-group.
Blum has maintained that learning the LSD language and vocalizing
the philosophy of the psychedelic subculture are steps in the
commitment of an individual to an identifiable group. Language,
in this instance, becomes a device to provide structure and to
create a community of experience among persons who have had LSD.
Furthermore, whatever one expects from the psychedelics on the
basis of prior information and personal predispositions strongly
influences the choice of words later used to describe the experience
The experience of being taught linguistic terminology by members
of the drug subculture is more than instruction in communication.
It is instruction in approved words and approved experiences;
it is instruction in a point of view. The terms that are learned
can be used to structure the pharmacological response to a drug,
giving the experience sense and meaning that it may not otherwise
have had. After his first trip, a novice might be told, "Oh
yes, from what you say I can tell you really did have a transcendental
experience." Such comments are not only instructive, helping
the person define and describe his response, but they are also
approving and rewarding. As experiments on conditioned behavior
have demonstrated, rewarded behavior is generally repeated. In
the case of illegal LSD use, the rewardsoften linguistic in
natureare frequently great enough to overshadow such potential
hazards as psychosis, suicide, and chromosomal damage.
Regarding legal experimental use of the psychedelics, it has often
been observed that the language used by the guide will influence
what the subject says later to describe his session. This observation
is borne out by some of the early research studies. It was initially
believed that LSD produced psychotic reactions, and the drug was
termed "psychotomimetic" by psychiatrists and psychologists
(Rinkel, 1956). LSD subjects were sometimes told by the physician
administering the drug, "You probably will go out of your
mind for several hours"; many subjects later reported terrifying
experiences. One early experimenter took verbatim recordings of
an interview with an LSD subject and of an interview with a schizophrenic
subject, and outside judges could not distinguish which of the
two was suffering from schizophrenia. (Hoffer, 1956).
As research workers became more knowledgeable, the psychotomimetic
label was discarded by many investigators. Pollard, Uhr, and Stern
(1965) noted that psychotic disorders are characterized "by
personality disintegration and failure to test and evaluate correctly
external reality in various spheres." Following the conclusion
of their work with LSD, they stated, "In none of the normal
experimental subjects to whom we have given these drugs, nor in
our own experience, could these criteria be satisfied."
The problem of scientific scrutiny of verbal reports made during
psychedelic sessions persists. One promising tool for linguistic
analysis is the measure devised by Bernard Aaronson (1955) for
the examination of verbal behavior in psychotherapy. Using standardized
measures of word complexity, Aaronson found that, as psychological
stress is alleviated, word complexity increases. Another research
tool is that used at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory to divide
spoken dream reports into units of meaning (Malamud et al., 1967).
As the typical subject in experimental dream studies has little
concern for grammatical formalism when he makes his verbal report,
this method determines units of meaning to be analyzed with regard
to dream content.
Using the Cloze procedure to study grammatical predictability,
Cheek and Amarel (1968) administered LSD to ten alcoholics, and
analyzed their speech patterns. It was found that grammatical
predictability tended to rise as the alcoholics continued to speak,
both in the drug and non-drug conditions. A group of ten schizophrenics
was also studied in the non-drug condition; their grammatical
predictability tended to drop.
In another study (Katz, Waskow, and Olsson, 1968), a group of
sixty-nine convicts were administered LSD, amphetamine, and placebos.
The subjects receiving LSD were found to be significantly different
from the other subjects regarding a number of effects, including
language. LSD subjects in general were described as "giggly";
the more-dysphoric subjects spoke little and slowly, the ambivalent
subjects spoke a great deal and rapidly, while the euphoric subjects
fell in the middle regarding speech behavior.
Charles Dahlberg, Stanley Feldstein, and Joseph Jaffee (1968)
are in the process of making a detailed analysis of the verbal
reports of psychoneurotic patients during twenty-two therapy sessions.
Before each session, the patient ingested between fifty and one
hundred micrograms of LSD. The therapy sessions were spaced over
a period of eighteen months.
The patients' verbal reports were transferred to IBM punch cards
and are being submitted to several techniques of linguistic analysis.
One such technique, the Role Construct Sorting Procedure, is a
test to measure changes in the way patients conceptualize people
who are important in their lives. Moreover, these measurements
of change are themselves being analyzed for indications of increased
and expanded associations on the part of the patients.
In addition, the Cloze procedure, an index of redundancy, is being
used as a measurement of the predictability of interpersonal language
in the patient-therapist interchange. The Type-Token Ratio is
a measure of vocabulary diversity and, indirectly, an indicator
of the informational structure of speech. Finally, nurses who
attended the patients after each session have rated the patients
as to speech patterns, periods of silence, periods of withdrawal,
mood swings, etc.
Preliminary results indicate that LSD facilitates treatment of
early experiences in patients by producing partial regression.
In addition, LSD appears to increase the patients' ability to
evaluate their problems clearly and to communicate their insights
to the psychotherapist with facility.
Written language attempts to convey meaning through printed symbols.
Although S. Weir Mitchell (1896), one of the first to write a
description of a psychedelic experience, stated that his peyote
experience was "... hopeless to describe in language,"
he later managed to describe "... stars, delicate floating
films of color, then an abrupt rush of countless points of white
light [that] swept across the field of view, as if the unseen
millions of the Milky Way were to flow in a sparkling river before
my eyes." His account was sufficiently vivid for Trouton
and Eysenck (1961) to be able to suggest that he substituted primitive
thinking in the form of visual images for conceptual thought.
While at the sensory level, during his first LSD experience, a
subject attempted to write an account of his subjective reactions,
but became fascinated with the very act of writing itself:
Amazing! Amazing! The fluidity of the panorama of the room! It
seems like eons of time pass between each letter when I write
it. As I write, I see the loops, the dots, etc., spiral off the
page in colors. Off to infinity!
At the recollective-analytic level, imagery persists but conceptualization
is often possible as well. For example, Thomas Ling and John Buckman
(1963) have reported the case of a European writer who overcame
"writer's block" through LSD therapy. Prior to taking
LSD, he had been unable to finish a manuscript. After LSD therapy,
he went on to become one of the leading authors in Germany. His
major work completed during the time he was in therapy, was translated
into twelve languages and had a wide audience in the Western world.
The writer concluded:
I am no longer afraid of putting one letter after the other to
say what I want.... I seem capable of expressing what many people
would love to express but for which they cannot find the words.
I did not find the words before, because I tried to avoid saying
the essential things.
Material that emerges at the recollective-analytic level does
not always lead to the well-being of the subject, especially
if the drugs are taken in unsupervised sessions and with an absence
of preparation. Following an LSD session, a college student wrote
the following account of his experience at the recollective-analytic
Apparently some sort of love-making was going on in the other
room because the guide would not let me enter it. As it turned
out, this was the wrong thing to do, because it started me on
the road to paranoia, panic, and "the depths." His refusal
to let me enter the room aroused my suspicions of an ulterior
motive. I picked one which I have a curious fear of: homosexuality.
I was unwilling to submit to what became suggestive words, lewd
actions, and a depraved smile. I shudder when I recall it. My
fear was not of the act but that if I submitted I would become
"one of them"-"them" being an indefinite but
evil sort of being with a depraved smile-and never able to "return."
It reminds me of the movie "The Pod People," where "people"
are grown in pods and substituted for real people. You don't know
if your best friend is one of these "people" dedicated
to your destruction or conversion until it is too late.
Because of the pathological elements in this written description,
the student was advised by several people to do no more drug experimentation.
However, about a year later, the student accepted a friend's invitation
to smoke marijuana. The session began with a number of pleasant
bodily feelings and unusual perceptual impressions. Suddenly,
the student became obsessed with the notion that his friend desired
to have sexual relations with him. The student's friend called
the police, and the student was rushed to a hospital, having entered
a serious psychotic episode. (2)
In this tragic instance, the student's written account could have
served as a predictor of what would likely happen during future
An individual attempting to write descriptions of psychedelic
experience at the symbolic level has the difficult job of choosing
verbal terms that convey some sense of his mythic encounters.
This formidable task was well handled by an attorney in the following
way (Masters and Houston, 1966, pp. 221-22 ):
I saw Jesus crucified and Peter martyred. I watched the early
Christians die in the arena while others moved hurriedly through
the Roman back streets, spreading Christ's doctrine. I stood by
when Constantine gaped at the vision of the cross in the sky.
I saw Rome fall and the Dark Ages begin, and observed as little
crossed twigs were tacked up as the only hope in ten thousand
wretched hovels. I watched peasants trample it under their feet
in some obscene forest rite, while, across the sea in Byzantium,
they glorified it in jeweled mosaics and great domed cathedrals.
The attorney's written description is imaginative, yet fairly
concrete, just as the mythical world is concrete. The linguistic
consciousness of primitive man is non-abstract; its concreteness
is marked by a concrescence of name and thing (as exemplified
by the various types of name taboos). Ernst Cassirer (1955) has
noted that in some primitive religions the worshiper did not dare
to utter the name of his gods; in others, certain words were used
for the purpose of hex and voodoo. This concrescence of name and
thing is demonstrated by a subject's report of a peyote session:
The guide asked me how I felt, and I responded "Good."
As I uttered the word "Good," I could see it form visually
in the air. It was pink and fluffy, like a cloud. The word looked
"good" in its appearance and so it had to be "Good."
The word and the thing I was trying to express were one, and "Good"
was floating around in the air.
Name and thing are often wedded at the recollective-analytic and
the symbolic levels. A subject will say the word "Mother"
and feel that the word itself contains aspects of his own motheror
of his memories of her. A theology student will say "Logos"
and imagine that God and Christ are both present within the word.
Only after the drug's effects begin to wear off can these individuals
tear the words apart from the experience.
As with other language processes, psychedelic substances can affect
the act of writing by bringing about a regressive-type phenomenon
(in which words and experience are united, as they often are with
the child and with the primitive tribesman) or else improve the
process (by removing "writer's block," facilitating
verbal expression, etc.). In some cases both occur, as when a
writer engages in concrescence of word and thing at the symbolic
or integral level and later presents a vivid written description
of that experience.
To assist the encoding of psychedelic experience, an "experimental
typewriter" has been invented by Ogden Lindsley and William
Getzinger (Leary, 1966a). The typewriter has twenty pens, any
of which can be depressed by the subject to describe his ongoing
experience. The subject must be trained in the use of the device
and must learn the code that assists him to describe his psychedelic
sensations and reactions. For example, the first key is depressed
whenever bodily sensations are experienced; the third key is depressed
when feelings about other people are experienced. Although further
refinement of this device is needed, the research possibilities
seem extensive. A subject could tap out a second-by-second sequence
of his experiences, and communicate them at least in general terms.
Experience patterns could be correlated with neurological recordings.
A guide could keep a close watch on the subject's reactions should
it be felt advisable to modify the experience.
In one first-person report (Roseman, 1966), a subject claimed
that he learned how to become a skilled typist by means of psychedelic
experience. Instead of emphasizing the more ideational aspects
of the writing process, the subject concentrated on sheer motor
activity. First, he familiarized himself with the keyboard and
learned the proper fingering techniques. To reinforce the matching
of fingers and typewriter keys, he took LSD, began to type, and
continued for several hours.
This subject's claims regarding a facilitation in motor function
are provocative and need to be explored under controlled conditions.
Peter Laurie (1967) has suggested that the act of writing may
be feasible under light doses of psychedelic substances but, for
most people, impossible under heavy doses. In the case of writing,
therefore, one is struck by the same variety of reports as one
encounters with other forms of language; certain people under
certain conditions claim that their writing functions are enhanced,
others assert writing is impaired, and still others report no
The emergence of professional and public interest in psychedelic
substances coincides with the shift in human communication from
the chirographic-typographic to the electronic stage. Just as
electronic devices have begun to "re-tribalize" the
world and convey a sense of simultaneity to human experience,
so the LSD user often engages in mythic episodes, senses a "unity
of all peoples," and has an impression that everything is
happening "all at once"-in a nonlinear manner.
Psychedelic substances, when they affect language processes, sometimes
appear to assist an individual to observe the difference between
the word and the object it represents. In this way, the drugs
may serve as catalysts in a non-verbal training program, helping
the subject translate verbal abstractions in terms of direct experience.
Psychedelic substances can produce the opposite result as well.
The subject may revert to primitive thinking, his ability to conceptualize
may decrease, and he may effect a union between the word and its
object. This is exemplified by the concretization of letters into
pictures and images, by the concrescence of verbalizations with
the items they represent, and by the use of words in magical ways
on the part of several LSD subjects.
In other words, any of the human race's communicative stages-voice-and-ear,
chirographic-typographic, electronic-may be observed by the researcher
during a round of psychedelic sessions. Therefore, psychedelic
drugs offer an unparalleled opportunity for the investigation
of human language processes. The few experimental and clinical
reports that exist in the fields of listening, reading, speaking,
and writing differ so greatly as to inspire curiosity as to the
reasons that the same drugs can produce varied effects at different
dosage levels, with different individuals, and under different
conditions. An extremely important variable seems to be whether
or not language, either receptive or expressive, becomes integrated
with the ongoing psychedelic experience. If the integration occurs,
an improvement in function will often occur. If the connection
is not made, language functioning may deteriorate or become blocked
At the sensory level, words are encoded and decoded in highly
unusual ways. At the recollective-analytic level, language often
serves as a "connecting system" in memory and interpretation.
At the symbolic level, words often become part of a mythic or
historical ritual. At the integral level, language rarely is a
part of the immediate experience; however, many writers and poets
have effectively transformed their religious or mystical episodes
A permanent state of altered consciousness is neither practical
nor desirable. However, the individual may return to the world
of imprinting, conditioning, acculturation, and verbalization
with new insights if his psychedelic session has been properly
guided. The research possibilities in the field of language and
the psychedelics are immense. The data obtained by imaginative
and responsible investigators may well point the way to an enhancement
of creative functioning and a better understanding of the human
(1) Except in those cases where a reference
is cited, all first-person reports are from the files of the author.
(2) When I interviewed the student, I discovered that no antidote
had been given him once he entered the hospital. Instead, he was
queried by policemen, who insisted on knowing the names of campus
marijuana and LSD users. This type of treatment, in which the
well-being of the patient is relegated to a secondary status by
law enforcement personnel, has become very common as the general
public's fear of psychedelics has increased. (back)