The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience
Robert Masters, Ph.D.
Jean Houston, Ph.D.
A Book Review by Jake Brant
with thanks to Deep Books
‘The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience’, a manuscript documenting the pioneering research of Robert Masters and Jean Houston into the effects of LSD on human consciousness, was first published in 1966 – just as the negative stigma toward psychedelic substances, generated by the US press, was coming to its destructive conclusion. By 1970, the United States’ Controlled Substances Act of 1970 banned LSD outright. In 1971 the United Nations followed suit, making it extremely difficult for any doctors or scientists to continue their clinical investigations into the substance.
Although the book is very much a document of its time, Masters and Houston (who were married shortly before they began work on The Varieties) had over two decades of experience of LSD research between them by the time they set to writing – working both independently and collaboratively as part of a research team – and so their book, if somewhat constricted by the infinite possibilities of a new-born science, is still undeniably an extremely comprehensive guide to the possible effects of LSD-25. What the reader must remember is that the controls which have been placed on LSD over the last 30 years have been so restrictive that very little further conclusive research has been conducted, and so The Varieties remains as scientifically relevant today as it was upon first publication.
Masters and Houston spent many years guiding hundreds of volunteers through LSD experiences, and this first-hand research, along with research done by other contemporaries and collaborators, is what The Varieties consists of. After writing The Varieties, the authors went on to found the Foundation for Mind Research, an organisation which conducted studies on the borders between the physical and the mental, using the psychedelic chemicals and other techniques which are often placed under the umbrella term ‘psychedelic’ (for instance, meditation and breath-work). This further research has been documented in the later books of Houston, for example ‘Mind Games: The Guide to Inner Space’. Masters and Houston are two commendably cautious writers; never jumping to the conclusions which certain modern day psychedelic ‘researchers’ are often prone to. The Varieties is extremely scientific throughout, only exploring the possible causes for certain phenomena when they demand an explanation and making sure that all speculation is presented as speculation.
Although this scientific attitude towards the writing of The Varieties is nothing but beneficial, the scientific worth of the book should not be taken out of context. We must make a distinction between science and psychology. It should be remembered that science is the act of recording the results of physical experiments and theorising upon these results. The Varieties is a work of psychological science, and as such can be criticised as the results of the experiments are subjective – reported to us through the words of the patients – rather than objective results.
However, this criticism is a weak one, and I think that the psychological nature of Masters and Houston’s work is valuable, as it focuses on the conscious end of psychedelic studies, something which is often neglected by the work of psychedelic researchers from the fields of chemistry or neuro-science, and so the results of Masters and Houston’s research is more easily connected to by the common reader.
This book is a must-read for those who have had psychedelic experiences which have had a considerable impact upon their spiritual lives. Despite the scientific nature of the analyses of Masters and Houston, the trip reports of their subjects are often copied out verbatim which allows the reader to explore the mystical aspects of LSD and other psychedelics within their own imaginations. Particularly of note is the chapter which surmises the religious, spiritual and mystical aspects of the psychedelic experience. Readers who have had particularly spiritual experiences through the use of psychedelics may find comfort in the shared experiences to be found in this chapter, many of which correlate with one another and which may also correlate with the experiences of the reader. Masters and Houston keep their conclusions academic – rather than making jumps of logic and declaring all kinds of opinions regarding the nature of the universe to be valid through some kind of appeal to the masses, they instead focus their conclusions upon possible psychological causes for the need of the individual to connect with the spiritual aspect of life. However, the book gives enough first-hand reports of spiritual experiences for the reader to form their own opinions or to back up their current opinions.
As Masters and Houston’s research was primarily with LSD, and the trip reports contained within are wholly of LSD, the author’s refrain from commenting too much upon other substances. However, the research of other scientists into psilocybin is often mentioned, and the book’s introductory quarter presents an interesting history of psychedelic usage across the globe, including a fascinating analysis of native American peyote rites, which may remind the cynically minded of the Friday night drug parties of the 21st century in the West.
Masters and Houston’s book marks the end of the first golden age of contemporary psychedelic studies, and still remains a valuable document in the dawning of the second. This book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the psycho-therapeutic value of LSD, or the verbal explanations of an experience which is, at its core, essentially ineffable. ‘The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience’ is the natural successor to Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’, and is certainly a more informative and intellectual a read than the trip reports in the vaults of Erowid.