The Good Friday Project

The Good Friday experiment was another research project that was dreamt up from the Timothy Leary stable of thought. This time a research assistant to Leary, Walter Pahnke, a physician and minister who was studying for a Ph.D. in Religion and Society conducted a study of psychedelic religious experience that has since become known as the Good Friday Experiment. It was a well designed controlled, double-blind experiment to investigate the relationship between the experiences recorded in the literature of spontaneous mysticism and those reportedly associated with the ingestion of psychedelic drugs.

The study was also designed as a test of the set-and-setting hypothesis, in t hat it used subjects (divinity students) who presumably had a religious orientation (set) and it was conducted in a chapel during a religious service (setting).

Knowing that there was much resistance among mainstream religious people to the growing idea that genuine mystical experiences could be had from a drop on the tongue or a little pill, Pahnke chose his measuring instrument carefully.  Using classical and modern writings on mysticism, particularly W.T. Stace’s  Mysticism and philosophy (Stace1960), Pahnke developed a questionnaire with a nine-category typology of the mystical state of consciousness, which continues to be a touchstone for inquiry into mystical states today.  Briefly these aspects of religious experience are:

  1. Feeling of unity, internal and external.  Internal unity is describes as ‘the loss of usual sense impressions and loss of self without becoming unconscious’.  External unity is ‘a sense of underlying oneness …. Felt behind the empirical multiplicity.’
  2. Transcendence of Time and Space.  The loss of the usual sense of time, personal and impersonal, as well as orientation to the three-dimensional world.  Sometimes described as ‘eternity’ or ‘infinity.
  3. Deeply Felt Positive Mood.  The most universal of these are joy, blessedness, and peace, experienced intensely, even overpoweringly.
  4. Sense of Sacredness.  ‘A non –rational, intuitive, hushed palpitant sense of awe and wonder.’
  5. Objectivity and Reality. ‘Insightful knowledge or illumination felt at a intuitive, non-rational level and gained by direct experience’ with ‘certainty that such knowledge is truly real.’
  6. Paradoxically.  There is ‘loss of all empirical content in an empty unity which is at the same time full and complete’
  7. Alleged Ineffability.  Where words fail, perhaps due to the paradoxical nature of the essential phenomena.
  8. Transiency.  The mystical state passes and normal waking reality is restored.
  9. Persisting positive Changes in Attitude and Behaviour – toward self, others, life and the mystical experience itself.

Pahnke then set up the experiment using standard personality testing , and psychological and medical exams to select ten pairs of white male, psychedelically naïve, Protestant divinity  students matched for past religious experience, religious background, and general psychological make-up.  These subjects were then coached  by leaders experienced in psilocybin on how to deal with the experience: “go into the unexplored realms of experience during the actual experiment and not try to fight the effects of the drug even if the experience became unusual or frightening”. 

On Good Friday 1962, these students plus ten group leaders (research assistants) met together in the basement chapel of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel and all were given identical capsules.  Half contained an active Placebo (subjects and leaders were expecting an inactive placebo) containing nicotinic acid, and half contained psilocybin (30 mg for the subjects and, at the insistence of Leary and over the objections of Pahnke, 15 mg for the assistants.  Half an hour later a standard service, actually being conducted in the larger sanctuary upstairs by Rev. Howard Thurman (who was Martin Luther King’s mentor), was piped in to the lower chapel, which had the usual accoutrements of a Protestant chapel, such as stained glass windows, religious symbols, and pews.

The physical effects of the nicotinic acid (facial flushing and prickly sensations) set in very quickly, leading the controls to believe for a time that they were the ones receiving the psilocybin.  Shortly after, when others began remarking on such details as the spectacular candlelight, it became apparent to all who was tripping.  This loss of the double blind was anticipated and not considered significant, as the purpose of the experiment was to “determine whether volunteers who received psilocybin within a highly supportive , suggestive environment similar to that found in the ritual use os psychoactive substances by various native cultures would report more elements of a classical mystical experience than volunteers who did not receive psilocybin” (Dolbin 1991).

Immediately after the 2 ½ hour service, individual reactions of both subjects and controls were taped, as was the group discussion that followed.  In the following week, each subject wrote an account of his experience and completed a questionnaire designed to measure  the factors listed earlier on a qualitative, numerical scale.  Six months later they were interviewed again and completed a follow-up questionnaire. 

The results showed that in all but one of the nine categories, subjects in the experimental group experienced significantly higher scores than the controls.  The one exception was the experience of a “positive mood of love,” which was reported by the controls also.  The difference between the two groups persisted and even increased slightly in a six month follow-up interview conducted by Panhnke. 

In short , “The experience of the experimental subjects was certainly more like a mystical experience that that of the controls who had the same expectation and suggestion from the preparation and setting.  The most striking difference between the experimentals and the controls was the ingestion of thirty milligrams of psilocybin, which, it was concluded, was the facilitating agent responsible for the difference in phenomena experienced” (Pahnke 1966)

Over the ensuing years, until his death in 1971 from a diving accident, Pahnke maintained his conviction that the various psychedelic drugs held great potential for research into the mystical experience:

The results of our experiment would indicate that psilocybin ( and LSD and mescaline, by analogy) are important tools for the study of the mystical state of consciousness.  Experiences previously possible for only a small minority of people, and difficult to study because of their unpredictability and rarity, are now reproducible under suitable conditions.  The mystical experience has been called by many names suggestive of areas that are paranormal and not usually considered easily available for investigation (eg, an experience of transcendence, ecstasy, conversion, or cosmic consciousness); but this is a realm of human experience that should not be rejected as outside the realm of serious scientific study, especially if it can be shown that a practical benefit can result.  Our data would suggest that such an overwhelming experience, in which a person existentially encounters basic values such as the meaning of his life (past, present and future), deep and meaningful interpersonal relationships, and insight into the possibility of a personal behaviour change, can possibly be therapeutic if approached and worked with in a sensitive and adequate way (Pahnke 1966).

Again  25 years later, Rick Dolbin conducted a follow up study, tracking down 19 of the original 20  subjects of the Good Friday Experiment, and re-interviewed them and re-administered the 6 month follow up questionnaire.  From this Dolbin discovered  “ the scores of persisting positive and negative changes in attitude and behaviour have changed remarkably little for either the controls or the experimentals despite the passage of between 24 and 27 years between the two tests.” (Dolbin 1991).  For the experimental group, scores in the mystical categories actually increased by several points, while for the controls the changes were negligible.

In the interviews, subjects reported vivid memories of their Good Friday experience and characterized it as one if not the high points of their spiritual life.  Some compared it to subsequent mystical experiences and found the drug experience more intense  and had a wider emotional range than their non drug experiences.  The felt the experience had significantly affected their lives in a positive way, enhancing their appreciation of life and nature and deepening their sense of joy and their commitment  to their life’s work.  They felt their appreciation of unusual experiences and emotions was deepened, as well as their equanimity in crisis and their solidarity with beings unlike themselves (women, minorities).  They reported that the feelings of timelessness they experienced reduced their fear of death and emboldened them to take risks in life and participate in political struggles.  (How the Shroom Liberation Front can relate to that).

However we should mention that the Good Friday Experiment was at times chaotic.  One volunteer had something of a psychotic reaction and forced his way out of the building, where his erratic behaviour proved problematic.  He apparently felt that he had been told by God to go forth and proclaim the dawning messianic age, and was intent on doing just that – beginning by confronting the Dean of the University.  He had to be restrained and injected with thorazie to sedate him, a fact that Pahnke curiously omitted to include in his thesis.