The term “psychonaut” has Greek origins translating roughly to “mind-sailor,” and is used in reference to those who devote themselves to exploring and expanding their consciousness through use of psychoactive substances and occasionally other mind-altering techniques. It has been applied to people from a variety of different positions in society throughout human history but has gained far more popularity in the last half-century to refer to those in our society who see spiritual significance and the potential for both personal and societal betterment in the use of psychedelic substances. The popularity of these beliefs and the lifestyle of increased drug use that often accompanies them has increased with the advent of the internet and greater public advocacy both for and against the use of such substances.
The most widely used of these drugs are the chemicals LSD (“acid”), Psilocybin/Psilocin (“magic” mushrooms), MDMA (“ecstasy”), DMT, and mescaline (peyote), though there remain a wide variety of less well-known chemicals that share certain effects. Some of these chemicals, or the plants they can be found in, have significant history of spiritual and medicinal use in the indigenous cultures of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, often consumed by a shamanic elder or group as part of various ceremonies. Within the last century however, these chemicals have spread beyond these original practices to the general public and have gained a greater variety of uses from the recreational to the medical. The use of these chemicals recreationally is a phenomenon undeniably connected to the “hippies” of the counterculture movement that arose in the western world in the mid-20th century who took these drugs frequently and in excess. Simultaneously, these drugs were starting to generate great excitement to the psychiatric community, both as a form of treatment for some mental conditions and as a way to further our understanding of human consciousness. Psychonauts often arise out of both these areas of use, as they usually find significant personal enjoyment in the use of psychedelics, but as well see them as a way help deal with personal mental problems they face, hoping to discover some insights they can keep with them and share with the rest of the world.
Those who decide to experiment with the mind-altering experiences that are created by psychedelic substances can have highly different reasons for doing so. This is due to the varied public awareness and often negative public perception of these substances that leads to people having vastly different amounts of knowledge about the effects, risks, and history of these drugs. Due to this, people often have experiences that differ from expectations they may have had going in, which usually either deters future use, or entices people to try them again. Psychonauts however, often seem to find their psychedelic trips to be of greater significance than merely a fun drug-induced experience. Usually this comes about due to some portion of the experience affecting these people in a mystical and transcendental way that often leads to some significant personal realization or major philosophical reorientation (Lerner, 2006). After this development these people claim to be changed for the better, and usually seek to understand the nature of their experience and the realizations that came from it in greater depth by engaging in further psychedelic experiences throughout their life.
The appeal of using drugs with primarily psychedelic effects over other drugs for psychonauts is due to some of their chemical traits as well as the history behind their use. Many of these drugs have shown relatively little habit-forming or addiction potential, due to both the biochemical effects in the body and the intensity of psychedelic experience that often causes users to take breaks between major uses. Since some of these chemicals are quite similar in structure to those that are processed naturally in the human body, they tend to have minimal physically harmful effects themselves, with longer-lasting effects being almost entirely psychological in nature. Thus, the common conclusion amongst psychonauts is that these drugs are far safer to consume than most other substances, though MDMA and several less well-researched psychedelic compounds have a history of being more dangerous, particularly when combined with other substances. The historical use of psychoactive substances in shamanic rituals is as well a major reason psychonauts pursue the benefits they find in the use of these drugs. Many psychonauts see themselves as “new/techno-shamans,” as they believe they are pursuing the same experiences and knowledge that were pursued ceremonially for millennia of human history (Orsolini, 2017). While there remain dangers involved in the consumption of these drugs, the low risk relative to other substances and history of ceremonial use for communal benefit combine with the personal enjoyment these experiences can have to outweigh such concerns for these avid users.
Several specific developments led to the increased awareness and use of psychedelic drugs by the general public that spawned modern-day psychonauts. One of the first of these was Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of the effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
(LSD) in 1943, after initially synthesizing it in 1938 for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. Having had some strange effects after accidentally consuming an unknown amount, he administered himself a very small dose and underwent a powerful experience, concluding that the drug could be quite significant for psychiatry. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals eventually began to market LSD as “Delysid” over the next two decades, and word of its powerful effects spread. Psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms was popularized later after “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” was published in Life Magazine by a banker named Robert Gordon Wasson in the mid-1950s. He had been searching for rumored mushrooms that brought about visions and found them in a remote Mexican village, where he witnessed the use of them by the locals and tried them first-hand, undergoing profound visions and deciding their mechanism of action must be understood. After this article, many people traveled to Mexico in search of the same mushrooms, inspiring further research but also drawing unwanted attention to what had been relatively sacred ceremonies for these communities that then became tourist attractions of a sort.
Eventually, as research and use of psychoactive substances increased, several figures began to emerge at the forefront of the movement advocating for their benefits, the most famous of which was arguably Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. Leary led a project at Harvard studying the therapeutic potential of psilocybin for many years and became a passionate believer in psychedelic’s potential to improve society by helping make people better. As his advocacy for their recreational use by any individual began to supersede accepted methods of scientific study for these chemicals he was fired from Harvard in 1963 and spent the rest of his life writing and traveling across America to encourage people to use psychedelics. This advocacy, which often included messages opposing war and questioning authority, led then-president Nixon to call him “the most dangerous man in America,” and as stories of bad experiences on these substances arose, the US government decided to outlaw the vast majority of psychoactive substances. This was one of the events marking the beginning of the United State’s “war on drugs,” which, in conjunction with the advocacy of Timothy Leary and many figures liked him, forced many people to become aware of and consider their position regarding the use of drugs.
With the drugs federally outlawed, restricting any legal access to them and hindering all ongoing research, many of those who felt they had found significant benefit in these substances did not know what to do. While many continued to protest their illegalization and advocate the philosophies that they had developed in the use of these substances, it was not until the advent of the internet that those who still believed in their use could easily coordinate and discuss their ideas easily. With the accessible information, relative anonymity, and easy communication the internet brought to people’s daily lives, those who wanted to discuss these now illegal substances openly turned to online forums where they could talk with people who had had similar experiences (Davey, 2012). As the years went on, more of these forums appeared and became popular, eventually spawning databases of relevant information where people could find detailed experience reports and chemical information on the psychoactive substances they encountered. These forums and databases are intended primarily as sources for education on the use of psychedelics, to spread accurate information and harm-reduction practices to people living in a world where the use of most psychedelics is illegal making valid information harder to get. This is particularly useful in regard to “research chemicals,” which are psychoactive drugs with much less well-documented effects due to lack of study or recent synthesis, thus posing far more risks that psychonaut forums hope to help explore and document (Al-Imam, 2017). This is the other primary goal of psychonaut communities, to spread accurate information about the substances they believe in the benefits of with the eventual hope of at least medical/therapeutic legalization, even though this deviates from government statements and laws (Jenks, 1995).
When not comparing, compiling, and spreading this information, these forums are used to answer questions from people undergoing psychedelic experience or about to and for discussion of ideas and visions people have encountered in their experiences. The ideas discussed range from philosophical musings on the nature of consciousness to fairly developed theories of evolution and human interaction as inspired by psychedelic experience. These ideas are often inspired by, or are highly similar to, ideas brought up by major psychonautic figures like Timothy Leary, including Aldous Huxley, Terrence McKenna, and John C. Lilly to name a few. For instance, a common sensation felt in the psychedelic state, and advocated for by these figures outside of this state, is that of increased or expanded love and empathy for much more of the world, and users often discuss the meaning and practical use of such thoughts in daily life. Terrence McKenna is responsible for some of the most heavily discussed theories tied to psychonaut activities, such as that human consciousness and religious activities are directly tied to psychedelic consumption early in the evolution of our species (“stoned ape theory”), or that the rise of psychedelic use was the solution to a corrupted society that had disconnected from the natural world (Monteith, 2016). These theories and more form the basis of psychonaut philosophy and despite some remaining debate, indicate the areas of greatest psychonaut interest and demonstrate their goals of bettering the world with help from psychedelic compounds.
Currently many psychonaut-based online forums are active and seem to be quite effective in promoting and spreading their message. Many have earned support from somewhat more official organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) which plays a major role in spreading information and funding for research into psychoactive substances (Jenks, 1995). There has as well been a surge in the practice of microdosing (taking very small amounts of psychoactive compounds to enhance creativity) in places like Silicon Valley, likely spurred by the advocacy of the famous psychonautic figures and increased accessibility and volume of information available. Michael Pollan, a famous food writer, recently published “How to Change Your Mind,” a book on his recent experiences with psychedelics, and it reached the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly interest in psychedelics is on the rise again since the initial outlawing of these drugs, with the potential for their legalization again only increasing as more research is done. In this time though, psychonauts have played the important role of documenting and expanding upon the knowledge and ideas that people from ancient shamans to Timothy Leary have been exploring, developing a complex culture of avid psychedelic use for personal benefit despite federal laws against it.
Figures & Works
Prominent Figures and Works
Albert Hoffman (1906-2008): The first person to ever synthesize and try one of the most potent psychedelic drugs, LSD
Timothy Leary (1920-1996): Former Harvard researcher of psilocybin who became one of the most prominent advocates for psychedelic use and psychonaut philosophy
John C. Lilly (1915-2001): Neuroscientist whose psychedelic experiences inspired him to invent the sensory deprivation tank to be able to study the nature of consciousness in a vacuum.
Terrence McKenna (1946-2000): a botanist whose psychedelic experiences led him to develop many theories about human evolution’s connection to these substances that have since become important beliefs and discussion points of psychonaut communities.
This is the aforementioned article that brought mainstream society’s attention to the idea of “magic mushrooms.” The account of a relatively normal American banker having such a powerful experience energized many people who sought spiritual awakening, eventually leading to these mushrooms attracting major scientific study and recreational use.
A very recent book in which famed food writer Michael Pollan accounts his recent experiences and research regarding the science of psychedelic drugs. As an adult with minimal prior experience with these substances, his perspective is particularly interesting for an average individual looking to learn about these ideas, to a degree where this book quickly made it onto a New York Times bestseller list for 2018.
This book covers the entire history of the invention and spread of LSD from its creator’s perspective in Albert Hoffman. He discusses his initial discovery of the drug, the benefits he sees for it, as well as the aspects of society’s use of it that concerned him. As the first person to ever try the substance without any preconceived notions about the experience, his perspective is especially intriguing.
One of the most influential books in the psychonaut community. It recounts Aldous Huxley’s personal experiences with and some conclusions about psychedelics, particularly mescaline, in great detail. As a famous and influential writer of the time, this book had a major impact on the perceptions and knowledge mainstream society had of psychedelic use.
These two books document the many varieties of psychoactive chemicals that fall into two major categories: Phenethylamines and Tryptamines, the titles standing for “Phenethylamines/Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved.” They document the self-experiments and syntheses done by Alexander Shulgin and other researchers trying to explore the possibilities of and gain an understanding of the chemical nature of psychoactive substances and the experiences they induce.
“Magic Medicine” by Monty Wates – https://magicmedicine.net/
This recent documentary follows the story of several individuals dealing with severe instances of anxiety and depression by way of psilocybin mushroom treatment. It is an account of the history and successes of the first modern-day trials to make use of such psychedelic substances for their potential therapeutic uses.
This film follows two military veterans seeking help from psychedelic medicine for the mental health issues they have suffered from since their service, particularly PTSD. It focuses on the use ayahuasca, a DMT infused beverage, and the communities surrounding its ceremonial and medicinal use, as well as on the after-effects and social consequences of these treatments.
Erowid – https://www.erowid.org/
Database of information on psychedelic chemicals, plants, and practices, including harm-reduction guides, notes on the chemistry, anecdotal reports, and more. Based off information from both the experiences submitted by users of these substances/techniques as well as from the significant works of prominent figures in the history of psychedelic research and experimentation such as Alexander Shulgin and Albert Hoffman.
PsychonautWiki – https://psychonautwiki.org/wiki/Main_Page
Wikipedia-like database of information on drugs, their effects, and different ways of understanding them. Designed for both psychonauts and other curious individuals with information compiled from individual submissions to the website and content from related forums.
Bluelight – https://www.bluelight.org/vb/content/
Forum for members to discuss harm-reduction techniques and experiences with any number of drugs. One of the more popular websites for psychonauts to compare experiences and ask questions about certain drugs and related ideas they have had.
TripSit – https://tripsit.me/
Much like the other sites, this serves as a database for safety, dosage, and expectations regarding psychoactive drugs. It is targeted at people who may be “trip-sitting,” which refers to someone who remains sober to care for and help someone undergoing a psychedelic “trip.”
Al-Imam, Mohammed Lutfi, and Ahmed Al-Imam. 2017. “Knowledge and (Ab)Use in Connection with Novel Psychoactive Substance: A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Psychedelic Users Existing on Online Platforms,” Global Journal of Health Science 9:11:51-60.
Davey, Zoe and Fabrizio Schifano, Ornella Corazza, Paolo Deluca. 2012. “e-Psychonauts: Conducting research in online drug forum communities,” Journal of Mental Health 21:4:386-394.
Deluca, Paolo and Zoe Davey, Ornella Corazza, Lucia Di Furia, Magi Farre, Liv Holmefjord Flesland, Miia Mannonen, Aino Majava, Teuvo Peltoniemi, Manuela Pasinetti, Cinzia Pezzolesi, Norbert Scherbaum, Holger Siemann, Arvid Skutle, Marta Torrens, Peer van der Kreeft, Erik Iversen, Fabrizio Schifano. 2012. “Identifying emerging trends in recreational drug use; outcomes from the Psychonaut Web Mapping Project,” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 39:2:221-226.
Jenks, Shepherd M., Jr. 1995. “An Analysis Of Risk Reduction Among Organized Groups That Promote Marijuana and Psychedelic Drugs,” The Journal of Drug Issues 25:3:629-647.
Lerner, Michael and Michael Lyvers.2006. “Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Drug Users: A Cross-Cultural Study,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 38:2:143-147.
Monteith, Andrew. 2016. “The Words of McKenna: Healing, Political Critique, and the Evolution of Psychonaut Religion since the 1960s Counterculture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84:4:1081–1109.
Orsolini, Laura and Paul St John-Smith, Daniel McQueen, Duccia Papanti, John Corkery, Fabrizio Schifano. 2017. “Evolutionary Considerations on the Emerging Subculture of the E-psychonauts and the Novel Psychoactive Substances: A Comeback to the Shamanism?” Current Neuropharmacology 15:5:731-737.
Pollan, Michael. 2018. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. New York: Penguin Press.