Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Over-the-counter “paranormal” drug used by 3.1 million Americans to get high

According to a new report in the US based on SAMHSA's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “…the cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DXM) is found in more than 140 over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medications. In 2006 about 3.1 million persons aged 12 to 25 (5.3%) had ever used an over-the-counter cough and cold medication to get high; that is, used it nonmedically. Nearly 1 million persons aged 12 to 25 (1.7%) had used an over-the-counter cough and cold medication to get high in the past year.”

What isn’t popularly known is that at high enough doses the dissociative drug DXM causes subjective paranormal effects similar to those of ketamine, such as out-of-body experiences (OBEs), near-death experiences, a loss of the sense of causality, a sense of presence, encounters with entities, and the occasional experience of extra-sensory perception (White, 1997, Price & Lebel, 2000). These reports were also corroborated by a recent survey on paranormal experience with psychoactive drugs that I conducted with Dr. Marios Kittenis of the University of Edinburgh. We found that several of our survey respondents acknowledged having experiences of clairvoyance, psychokinesis, OBEs, mystical-type experiences, and telepathy in particular (Luke & Kittenis, 2005). Several respondents also independently reported using DXM with others for the explicit purpose of having group telepathic experiences, which they believed to be real and recurrent.

DXM remains a legal drug at the present time, and with increasing numbers of people taking it for non-medical purposes the prevalence of subjective paranormal experiences occurring amongst the public due to this drug must be becoming quite considerable, though no statistics are currently available. Furthermore, no research to date has tested the possibility that these reported telepathic and other experiences with DXM might actually be genuine. Previous research testing the efficacy of psychedelic agents in the production of ESP, mostly conducted throughout the 1960’s with psilocybin and LSD, showed some promising results, despite frequently using novice trippers (Luke, 2005). By the same token, however, much of this research also needed much better controls but certainly encouraged the idea that these drugs may be able to induce genuine psychic experiences, as claimed by shamans across continents and since antiquity. The latest such research project of this kind, using psilocybin and cannabis, was conducted with seemingly adequate controls at the University of Amsterdam by Prof. Dick Bierman and generated very interesting results, partially supporting the apparent efficacy of these substances in stimulating legitimate psychic (i.e., telepathic, clairvoyant or precognitive) phenomena (Bierman, 1998). Further research is certainly begging at this time.

David Luke

(Thanks to James Kent at DoseNation.com for reporting on the SAMHSA paper)


Bierman, D. J. (1998, October). The effects of THC and psilocybin on paranormal phenomena. Paper presented at Psychoactivity: A Multidisciplinary Conference on Plants, Shamanism, and States of Consciousness, Amsterdam.

Luke, D. P., & Kittenis, M. (2005). A preliminary survey of paranormal experiences with psychoactive drugs. Journal of Parapsychology, 69 (2), 305-327.

Luke, D. P. (2005). Paranormal phenomena and psychoactive drugs: Fifty-years of research Bulletin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, 15 (3), 15-16.

Price, L. H., & Lebel, J. (2000). Dextromethorphan-induced psychosis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157 (2), 304.

White, W. E. (1997). Altered states and paranormal experiences. In W. E. White, The Dextromethorphan FAQ: Answers to frequently asked questions about DXM, (version 4). Retrieved April 2, 2002, from http://www.erowid.org/chemical/dxm/faq/dxm_paranormal.shtml

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Brain scan tests fail to support validity of ESP

This news article by Carey Goldberg in The Boston Globe offers a fairly typical media view on parapsychology: a researcher outside of the field of parapsychology conducts just one experiment designed to find ESP, in this case in the brain, and fails. In response the media pick up the story and imply that ESP does not exist, particularly because some clever brain scientists looked under the lid to check if it was there. I don't see such articles being written every time a parapsychologist reports significant evidence of ESP.

The other problem here that has not been mentioned is that, in all of the brain's complexity how did these researchers know where to look to actually find ESP? This must have taken a great visionary or precognitive insight in itself. It's hardly any great feat to not find something if you don't know what you're looking for - this news article makes the experiment sound like the neurological equivalent of the SETI project. I guess the real shame is that instead of modifying the research project, the researchers have given up the enquiry because of their negative findings and career worries, further forcing science to strain to manifest truth under the yoke of pessimism and the mighty dollar...

Brain scan tests fail to support validity of ESP

Research on parapsychology is largely taboo in academia, but two Harvard scientists recently set out to settle, once and for all, the age-old question: Is extrasensory perception, or ESP, real?

Their sophisticated experiment answers: No, at least, not as far as they can tell using high-tech brain scanners to detect neural evidence of it.

In this month's Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, a respected academic journal devoted largely to brain imaging, Harvard's Samuel T. Moulton and Stephen M. Kosslyn publish findings aimed to resolve the parapsychological debate that has simmered at least since the time of their Harvard predecessor, William James, more than a century ago.

The study was the first to use cutting-edge brain scanning called functional MRI to address the question of whether ESP powers exist, said Moulton, who has been interested in ESP research since he stumbled across some previous supporting scientific research that he found impressive.


Monday, 14 January 2008

Dawkins vs Sheldrake

At the risk of making this just another Sheldrake blog this little report from Rupert about his meeting with arch-skeptic Richard Dawkins is destined to become a classic in the conflict between skepticism and paranormal research...

Richard Dawkins comes to call

(by Rupert Sheldrake in Network Review: The Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network)

Richard Dawkins is a man with a mission – the eradication of religion and superstition, and their total replacement with science and reason. Channel 4 TV has repeatedly provided him with a pulpit. His two-part polemic in August 2007, called Enemies of Reason, was a sequel to his 2006 diatribe against religion, The Root of All Evil?

Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date.

I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?

The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”

I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science.”

He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s. In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for well over a century. However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced any evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

In that case, I replied, there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been led to believe that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

Richard Dawkins has long proclaimed his conviction that “The paranormal is bunk. Those who try to sell it to us are fakes and charlatans”. Enemies of Reason was intended to popularize this belief. But does his crusade really promote “the public understanding of science,” of which he is the professor at Oxford? Should science be a vehicle of prejudice, a kind of fundamentalist belief-system? Or should it be a method of enquiry into the unknown?

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The skepticism of believers

Here's Rupert Sheldrake's New Year message on skepticism...

I used to think of skepticism as a primary intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth. I have changed my mind. I now see it as a weapon.

Creationists opened my eyes. They use the techniques of critical thinking to expose weaknesses in the evidence for natural selection, gaps in the fossil record and problems with evolutionary theory. Is this because they are seeking truth? No. They believe they already know the truth. Skepticism is a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.

Skepticism is also an important weapon in the defence of commercial self-interest. According to David Michaels, who was assistant secretary for environment, safety and health in the US Department of Energy in the 1990s, the strategy used by the tobacco industry to create doubt about inconvenient evidence has now been adopted by corporations making toxic products such as lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, and benzene. When confronted with evidence that their activities are causing harm, the standard response is to hire researchers to muddy the waters, branding findings that go against the industry's interests as "junk science." As Michaels noted, "Their conclusions are almost always the same: the evidence is ambiguous, so regulatory action is unwarranted." Climate change skeptics use similar techniques.

In a penetrating essay called "The Skepticism of Believers", Sir Leslie Stephen, a pioneering agnostic (and the father of Virginia Woolf), argued that skepticism is inevitably partial. "In regard to the great bulk of ordinary beliefs, the so-called skeptics are just as much believers as their opponents." Then as now, those who proclaim themselves skeptics had strong beliefs of their own. As Stephen put it in 1893, " The thinkers generally charged with skepticism are equally charged with an excessive belief in the constancy and certainty of the so-called 'laws of nature'. They assign a natural cause to certain phenomena as confidently as their opponents assign a supernatural cause."

Skepticism has even deeper roots in religion than in science. The Old Testament prophets were withering in their scorn for the rival religions of the Holy Land. Psalm 115 mocks those who make idols of silver and gold: "They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not." At the Reformation, the Protestants deployed the full force of biblical scholarship and critical thinking against the veneration of relics, cults of saints and other "superstitions" of the Catholic Church. Atheists take religious skepticism to its ultimate limits; but they are defending another faith, a faith in science.

In practice, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth, but the exposure of other people's errors. It plays a useful role in science, religion, scholarship, and common sense. But we need to remember that it is a weapon serving belief or self-interest; we need to be skeptical of skeptics. The more militant the skeptic, the stronger the belief.

Rupert Sheldrake