Illustration from The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chinese book of alchemy and meditation.

Psychonautics (from the Ancient Greek ψυχή psychē 'soul, spirit, mind' and ναύτης naútēs 'sailor, navigator')[1] refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by meditation or mind-altering substances, and to a research cabal in which the researcher voluntarily immerses themselves into an altered mental state in order to explore the accompanying experiences.[2]

The term has been applied diversely, to cover all activities by which altered states are induced and utilized for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition, including shamanism, lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,[3] the Siddhars of Ancient India,[4] sensory deprivation,[1] and archaic/modern drug users who use entheogenic substances in order to gain deeper insights and spiritual experiences.[5] Self-experimentation of psychedelics in groups may foster innovation of alternative medication treatment.[6] A person who uses altered states for such exploration is known as a psychonaut.

Etymology and categorization

The term psychonautics derives from the prior term psychonaut, which began appearing in North American works in the late 1950s. The first reference that corresponds to contemporary usages of the term was in the 1965 edition of the Group Psychotherapy journal. A 1968 magazine, Beyond Baroque, refers to Timothy Leary as a psychonaut.[citation needed]

German author Ernst Jünger describes ideas related to psychonautics - in reference to Arthur Heffter - in his 1970 essay on his own extensive drug experiences Annäherungen: Drogen und Rausch (literally: "Approaches: Drugs and Inebriation").[1][7] In this essay, Jünger draws many parallels between drug experience and physical exploration—for example, the danger of encountering hidden "reefs."

Peter J. Carroll made Psychonaut the title of a 1982 book on the experimental use of meditation, ritual and drugs in the experimental exploration of consciousness and of psychic phenomena, or "chaos magic".[8]

The term's first published use in a scholarly context is attributed to ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott, in 2001.[9]

Definition and usage

Clinical psychiatrist Jan Dirk Blom describes psychonautics as denoting "the exploration of the psyche by means of techniques such as lucid dreaming, brainwave entrainment, sensory deprivation, and the use of hallucinogens or entheogens, and a psychonaut as one who "seeks to investigate their mind using intentionally induced altered states of consciousness" for spiritual, scientific, or research purposes.[1]

Psychologist Dr. Elliot Cohen of Leeds Beckett University and the UK Institute of Psychosomanautics defines psychonautics as "the means to study and explore consciousness (including the unconscious) and altered states of consciousness; it rests on the realization that to study consciousness is to transform it." He associates it with a long tradition of historical cultures worldwide.[10] Leeds Beckett University offers a module in Psychonautics[11][12] and may be the only university in the UK to do so.[citation needed]

American Buddhist writer Robert Thurman depicts the Tibetan Buddhist master as a psychonaut, stating that "Tibetan lamas could be called psychonauts, since they journey across the frontiers of death into the in-between realm."[3]


The aims and methods of psychonautics, when state-altering substances are involved, is commonly distinguished from recreational drug use by research sources.[1] Psychonautics as a means of exploration need not involve drugs, and may take place in a religious context with an established history. Cohen considers psychonautics closer in association to wisdom traditions and other transpersonal and integral movements.[10]

However, there is considerable overlap with modern drug use and due to its modern close association with psychedelics and other drugs, it is also studied in the context of drug abuse from a perspective of addiction,[2] the drug abuse market and online psychology,[13] and studies into existing and emerging drugs within toxicology.[5]


The San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) has been used for healing and religious divination in the Andes Mountains region for over 3000 years.[14]

These may be used in combination; for example, traditions such as shamanism may combine ritual, fasting, and hallucinogenic substances.

Works and notable figures

See also: Psychedelic literature

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
Timothy Leary (1920–1996)
Two iconic psychonautical researchers and advocates of the 20th century.

Works such as Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, The Hasheesh Eater by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and On Hashish by Walter Benjamin have psychonautic elements insofar as they explore human and drug-induced experiences. They may be considered precursors to psychonautic literature, but they are not psychonautic works in their own right.

One of the best known psychonautic works is Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, which recounts his experience after taking 400mg of mescaline.[16][17][18][19] The American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, writer and inventor John C. Lilly was a well-known psychonaut. Lilly was interested in the nature of consciousness and, amongst other techniques, he used isolation tanks in his research.[20]

Ken Kesey is an author well-known for accounts of his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. Philosophical- and Science-fiction author Philip K. Dick has also been described as a psychonaut for several of his works such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.[17]

Another influential figure is the psychologist and writer Timothy Leary.[18] Leary is known for controversial talks and research on the subject; he wrote several books including The Psychedelic Experience. Another widely known name is that of American philosopher, ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author Terence McKenna.[21][22] McKenna spoke and wrote about subjects including psychedelic drugs, plant-based entheogens, shamanism, metaphysics, alchemy, language, culture, technology, and the theoretical origins of human consciousness.

Among the most influential figures are undoubtedly Alexander Shulgin and Ann Shulgin who together authored PiHKAL and TiHKAL, a pair of books which contain fictionalized autobiographies and detailed notes on over 230 psychoactive compounds. Some present-day psychonauts refer to themselves as "Shulginists" to denote a belief in the principles they identify in Shulgins' work.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Blom, Jan Dirk (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. Springer. p. 434. ISBN 978-1-4419-1222-0. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  2. ^ a b Newcombe, Russell (2008). "Ketamine Case Study: The Phenomenology of a Ketamine Experience". Addiction Research & Theory. 16 (3): 209–215. doi:10.1080/16066350801983707. S2CID 143462683.
  3. ^ a b As noted by Flores, Ralph (2008). Buddhist scriptures as literature: sacred rhetoric and the uses of theory. State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-7339-9. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  4. ^ R. N. Hema (December 2019). Biography of the 18 Siddhars (Thesis). National Institute of Siddha.
  5. ^ a b van Riel (2007). "New Drugs of Abuse". Clinical Toxicology. 45 (4): 372–3. doi:10.1080/15563650701284894. S2CID 218860546. Retrieved 5 March 2010.[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ Kempner, Joanna; Bailey, John (1 October 2019). "Collective self-experimentation in patient-led research: How online health communities foster innovation". Social Science & Medicine. 238: 112366. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112366. PMID 31345612. S2CID 196544851.
  7. ^ Jünger. "Psychonauten". Annaherungen: Drogen und Rausch. p. 430. Cited in Taylor; et al. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Thoemmes Continuum. p. 1312. ISBN 978-1-84371-138-4. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  8. ^ Carroll, Peter J. (April 1987). Liber Null. (1978) and Psychonaut. (1982) (published in one volume in 1987). Weiser Books. ISBN 978-0-87728-639-4.
  9. ^ Ott, Jonathan (2001). "Pharmanopo-Psychonautics: Human Intranasal, Sublingual, Intrarectal, Pulmonary and Oral Pharmacology of Bufotenine". Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 33 (3): 273–282. doi:10.1080/02791072.2001.10400574. PMID 11718320. S2CID 5877023. Archived from the original on 2 March 2012. Retrieved 5 March 2010. Cited by Blom, Jan Dirk (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. Springer. p. 434. ISBN 978-1-4419-1222-0. Retrieved 5 March 2010.
  10. ^ a b UK Institute of Psychonautics and Somanautics page Archived 10 November 2010 at the Wayback Machine at his "Academy for Transpersonal Studies". Archived from the original on 23 September 2010. Retrieved 10 March 2010.
  11. ^ "Course Specification - BA (Hons) Psychology and Society" (PDF). Leeds Beckett University. Leeds Beckett University. 2017–18. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 March 2023. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  12. ^ "Elliot Cohen". Staff Directory. Leeds Beckett University. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  13. ^ Schifano, Fabrizio; Leoni, Mauro; Martinotti, Giovanni; Rawaf, Salman; Rovetto, Francesco (August 2003). "Importance of Cyberspace for the Assessment of the Drug Abuse Market: Preliminary Results from the Psychonaut 2002 Project". CyberPsychology & Behavior. 6 (4): 405–410. doi:10.1089/109493103322278790. PMID 14511453.
  14. ^ Bigwood, Jeremy; Stafford, Peter J. (1992). Psychedelics encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Pub. pp. 118–9. ISBN 978-0-914171-51-5.
  15. ^ Herzberg, Nicholas. "Analysing Icaros: The Musicology of Ayahuasca Ceremonies". Retrieved 29 March 2023.
  16. ^ Dunne, Carey (30 July 2013). "See The Contest-Winning Cover For "Brave New World"". Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  17. ^ a b Doyle, Richard M. (2011). Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-99095-8.
  18. ^ a b Carpenter, Dan (2006). A Psychonaut's Guide to the Invisible Landscape: The Topography of the Psychedelic Experience. Park Street Press. ISBN 978-1-59477-090-6.
  19. ^ Jordison, Sam (26 January 2012). "The Doors of Perception: What did Huxley see in mescaline?". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  20. ^ Lilly, John C. (1956). "Mental Effects of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact, Healthy Persons" (PDF). Psychiatric Research Reports. Vol. 5. pp. 1–9.
  21. ^ Richards, Chris (31 March 2014). "Sturgill Simpson: A country voice of, and out of, this world". The Washington Post. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  22. ^ Harms, Shane (28 October 2014). "Fall brings a change in the climate of consciousness". Archived from the original on 24 February 2015. Retrieved 16 June 2015.
  23. ^ Doc, Zee (14 April 2018). "What is a Shulginist?". Doc Zee. Retrieved 29 October 2022.