Experimental Mysticism:

The History and Science of Psychedelic Research

Experimental Mysticism explores the claim that psychedelic substances like psilocybin (or “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD, also known as “acid”) can facilitate a bonafide mystical or religious experience. We explore the rich and uncommon cultural history and science of psychedelic research—spanning the isolation of mescaline from the peyote cactus by the German pharmacologist Dr. Arthur Heffter in 1897, up through the synthesis of LSD in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, and ending with the current “psychedelic renaissance” of research taking place at American university labs such as NYU Langone School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. We also consider contemporary religio-philosophical discourse on the nature of mystical experiences, as well as anthropological literature on ancient cultures that have a long history of using naturally occurring and plant based psychedelics in a religious context.  

Students will have the unique opportunity to meet veteran psychedelic researchers like Dr. William Richards (Johns Hopkins University), as well as religious practitioners such as James Lawer (Druid College of New York). In addition to weekly readings and film screenings, students will conduct a semester-long research project on a particular individual or “psychonaut,” from the annals of psychedelic history, who experimented with psychedelics for religious or spiritual purposes. Project Psychonaut culminates with a final paper and a TED style lecture or interdisciplinary art presentation to the class. Students also have the opportunity to expand their psychedelic education through the program of training offered by visiting fellow and psychedelic researcher, Dr. Katherine MacLean.