The “Good Friday Experiment”: A case study for the Role of Psychedelics in Treatment and Research
On Good Friday, 1962, before services began in Boston University's Marsh Chapel, Walter Pahnke administered small capsules to twenty Protestant divinity students. 10 capsules contained a large dose of niacin, part of the Vitamin B complex. 10 contained 30 milligrams of psilocybin, a hallucinogen extracted from mushrooms that produces vivid sensory images and distorted perception (Pahnke, 1963). Pahnke, who was both a physician and a minister, conducted the experiment for his Ph.D. in Religion and Society at Harvard University, with Timothy Leary as his principal academic advisor. Both experimenters hypothesized that the psychedelic drug could facilitate a "mystical" experience in religiously inclined volunteers who took the drug in a religious setting. Pahnke believed the most conducive environment for his experiment would be a community of believers participating in a familiar religious ceremony designed to elicit religious feelings, and therefore chose his subjects from the Harvard Divinity school, all previously acquainted, and coded them in a randomized controlled, matched group, double-blind experiment using an active placebo, niacin. They then allowed participants to experience a familiar Good Friday sermon, with careful monitoring and trained research ‘guides’ to mediate the experience, and required a survey afterwards describing their experience.
According to Pahnke, the experiment determined that "the persons who received psilocybin experienced to a greater extent than did the controls the phenomena described by our typology of mysticism" (Pahnke, 1963). Follow up studies with the participants in the short term demonstrated that all those receiving the drug continued to feel that they had had a mystical experience, and that the experience helped to shape their lives and career paths, as well as their interpretation of both faith and the world in general. Pahnke died in 1971, with much of the data from the study lost or still in coded form, which prevented long-term follow up. However, careful research undertaken by Rick Doblin, with the contribution of many of the original participants, allowed for a 25-year follow up survey to be administered. “Everyone I talked to who had the psilocybin felt after 25 years of reflection that the experience was a genuine mystical experience," Doblin says. "It was a clear viewing of some ultimate level of reality that had a long-term positive impact on their lives" (Winslow, 2006). Therefore, this study reveals that Pahnke’s original hypothesis had merit; not only could psilocybin act as an ethneogen, but the mystical experiences due to the psilocybin resulted in persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior.
Considering the results of the study, and the extremely positive opinion of all of the participants, it makes little sense that the study was almost immediately investigated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Their findings were highly publicized and ultimately resulted in the removal of Timothy Leary from the Harvard faculty, demonstrating the large anti-drug cultural upsurgence that was underway at the time. To be fair, there were certain reasons for the backlash that occurred; there was an increase in the number of people taking psychedelics in non-research settings at the time, and therefore the emergency room visitations for psychedelic causes showed increases as well. Also, Pahnke neglected in his original research to fully state the cautionary elements of the Good Friday experiment, in that he did not publish information about subjects who required intervention during the experiment. One subject required their guide to physically keep them in the chapel, and another subject was administered with the tranquilizer thorazine in order to calm him down (Doblin, 1991).
However, I believe that the originally published results about the mystical experiences that resulted from psilocybin should have been taken much more seriously from a scientific perspective. Recent evidence, provided by a Johns Hopkins 2006 study by Roland Griffiths using a similar model, demonstrated that two months after the sessions, 79% of the participants indicated in questionnaires that their sense of well-being and satisfaction increased after the psilocybin episodes, compared with 21% for Ritalin (the Hopkins control drug). Therefore, why is our society so unwilling to investigate the possible uses of psychedelics? It seems that a compound by any other name that demonstrated an improvement of the quality of life of the participant in 80% of the treated cases would be mass marketed immediately.
One of the main arguments against the use of psychedelic drugs, in both medical trials and the research of their general effects, is the “cost vs. gain” theory. There are many things that people cite as costs to the use of psychedelics; our seminar continued to bring up many of the ones that are most often cited. First, there is the issue of unpredictability; we do not know what exactly causes a ‘bad trip,’ be it environment and atmosphere, or individual difference in drug response. However, I would like to argue that if this is such a problem, shouldn’t it merit MORE research rather than less? If we think a drug has possibly useful effects, but that some people may react to it in a way we don’t want, it seems that we should study it more carefully to determine exactly what its mechanism of action is and how to prevent or minimize negative effects. Similarly, I think it is important to bring up the fact that many drugs currently on the market medicinally have significant negative side effects and are sold anyway, with a warning label. Even recreationally, legal substances, such as alcohol, often affect people badly but have become so central to our culture that their removal on this basis seems absurd.
This leads to a second cost that was brought up: the idea of drug abuse. Unfortunately, in our current culture seeking immediate “quick-fix” answers to problems, I feel that we are prone to abuse any substance that makes us ‘feel better’ or ‘more connected to the world and those around us.’ However, to return to alcohol as a counterexample, there have been no cases of medicinal or recreational overdose leading to death with psilocybin. Often, psychedelic drugs are a SAFER thing to overdose on than many of the current medicinal options sold over the counter. It is important to note that I am not advocating abuse, simply pointing out that if abuse will occur with practically any substance, why are we so carefully regulating research and use of psychedelics?
Similarly, this same argument comparing psychedelics to other legal substances applies when we look at the final concern about more widespread psychedelic use within a culture. Many of us felt okay with psychedelic use personally, but were wary of its affects when applied to a general populace. For example, a bus driver tripping does not only affect his own well-being, but a child’s health on the bus as well. This utilitarian view is one that I agree with; if another’s psychedelic use negatively affects me, then such behavior should be prohibited. However, there is a line of severity of the negatives that must be weighed against the gain at hand. If someone’s drug use causes me annoyance because they won’t stop talking, yet gives them relief from their PTSD, I would advocate their drug use. Again, I also stress here that it will be necessary to carefully regulate such substances; we could make psilocybin users prohibited from operating vehicles, or interacting with vulnerable people, such as children. One interesting idea that I thought of would be to require drug use to occur in specific safe zones, like smokers quarters, to help prevent harm to others. This idea may also alleviate concerns that atmosphere may inspire a bad trip because atmosphere could be determined experimentally and therefore partially controlled.
I have therefore come to the conclusion that further research involving the effects of these drugs might be useful, and could outweigh the possible problems above. Many studies have indicated that the changes in mental state brought on by psychedelics may allow us to confront issues and problems in our lives in a different way. Some have likened psychedelics and cognitive behavioral therapy to each other, as they both attempt to get the patient to articulate the areas they feel uncomfortable with and confront their problems so as to start the healing process. To push the boundaries further, in an even less medically related context, psychedelics could be used for spiritual growth. Did Pahnke’s experiment allow its subjects to detach from existing cultural conventions and question their faith? If this is the case, as the results seem to suggest, psychedelic drugs could be used to mediate life changing experiences—which seem to be for the positive.
One thing that was interesting to me, however, was that when the class came to this conclusion it seemed to be purely for medical research. Many were willing to support studies to explore psilocybin’s effect on PTSD, or depression in terminal cancer patients, but did not stand behind studies such as the “Good Friday Experiment.” While not directly medically relevant, I think studies such as this provide equally interesting information. The use of these drugs seems to allow for a greater connection to the world and a better understanding of our place in it. Subjects from the original study have stated that, “Religious ideas that were interesting intellectually before, took on a whole different dimension… they were connected to something much deeper than belief and theory” (Doblin, 1991). Such insights, in a society that is increasingly complex, could provide crucial structure and foundation to our beliefs and interaction with our surroundings. While I have never personally experienced a psychedelic, I would never say that increased happiness, feeling of connectivity to others, and a sense of inner-peace and self-acceptance are bad things. Therefore, it seems to me that the use of these drugs should be a personal choice to alter your state of mind.
Opening this option could create a whole new avenue for thought and personal interaction, and could provide society with increased neural diversity. As we have mentioned in so many of our discussions, society needs to stop addressing that which is different on a good or bad comparative scale. We are comparing to a self-prescribed “normal” instituted by a majority group within society, and the judgment placed is often based solely on socio-cultural phobia. With respect to psychedelics, I think our judgment is still clouded by the widespread use of psychedelics, both in medical and nonmedical settings, which began in the 1960s and is still currently taking place largely underground. The intriguing political connection reported by several psilocybin subjects between mystical experiences and political action (Baumeister & Placidi, 1985) also may play a role in current rigid governmental control of these substances.
However, I believe that current research, and a look back at previous studies and their results, indicate that our negative connotations of psychedelic drugs are somewhat unfounded. I believe we do need more research and evidence on the mechanistic biological basis for the drugs effects, as I feel that this will be instrumental in proving their relative safety or risk. I also believe that there should be experiments performed in a wide range of topics, from medicine to cultural experience. The medical community needs new treatment options for difficult diseases, such as PTSD, and psychedelics seem to be a potential therapeutic option. The community at large needs increased diversity in our approach to thought, our interaction with each other, and our understanding of the world. If psychedelics could provide experiences that increase personal insight and connectivity, I think research into these areas and the option of their legality should be addressed. Do I think everyone should take psychedelics? No. Do I believe that research needs to be done to examine their possible benefits? Yes. Future experiments should be approached cautiously and carefully, with a multidisciplinary approach. We should not limit the scope of the usefulness of these drugs simply because of our socio-cultural bias, but we need to be cognizant of the possible harms and risks involved, both to the participants and the larger community. I believe that questions as fundamental as those raised by the Good Friday experiment deserve to be addressed by the scientific community, and renewed research will provide crucial information with which to address psychedelic drug use, regulation, and their implications on how we think about the world.
Doblin, R. (1991). Pahnke's "Good Friday Experiment": A Long-Term Follow-Up and Methodological Critique. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 23.
Winslow, R. (2006). “Go Ask Alice: Mushroom Drug is Studied Anew.” Wall Street Journal, pg B1.
Baumeister, R., Placidi, K. (1985). A social history and analysis of the LSD controversy. J. Humanistic Psychology, 23: 25-60
n In addition to references posted on the forum for our seminar discussion