Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research by Stanislav Grof

At the time this book was published Grof had spent more than a decade studying the use of LSD in controlled, therapeutic settings. This book is based on his enormous experience with the effects of the drug in thousands of trials with hundreds of different patients, and also his careful study of the structure of those effects. For readers who are unfamiliar with the effects of LSD, this is an excellent introduction. Grof explains how the medical community's understanding of LSD evolved, and how his own view of the psychedelic drug changed over time.

Grof argues that LSD has no specific or mandatory physiological response, but that it instead acts a generalized amplifier of conscious and unconscious processes. As such, he argues that the drug is a very valuable tool for studying the human mind, and deserves more attention for this purpose. He classifies the human response to LSD into four broad categories. While he is careful to point out that the LSD experience is always multi-level and complex, he argues that in repeated exposures to the drug, users generally progress from one category of experience to the next. The first category could be called the aesthetic stage, characterized by perceptual distortions or hallucinations, distortions of the sense of time and space, vivid sensory experiences, insight into creative arts, etc. The second stage is defined by what Grof calls COEX systems, that is systems of condensed experience. These are relatively autonomous systems of beliefs, feelings, memories etc., usually defined by traumatic experiences, sometimes by positive experiences. A COEX system is created by traumas in early life but later comes to control a person's personality, and new life experiences are then understood in terms of these systems. This is the well-known level of individual conflicts, neurosis, insecurity. As the patient works through these painful memories, often repressed, she comes to the third stage, which is the experience of the birth process. Here (and with the fourth stage) Grof's presentation obviously becomes rather controversial. It should be noted that Grof doesn't claim that these experiences are necessarily actual memories of the womb and birth. He presents his observations as deserving further study. Grof divides the birth experience into four stages, which he calls Perinatal Birth Matrices, corresponding to four stages of the birth process: stage 1 is the stasis in the womb, stage 2 is the beginning of labor when the womb contracts, stage 3 is active labor as the infant passes through the birth canal, and stage 4 is actual birth and separation from the mother. In Grof's view the traumas experienced in these stages, primarily in stages 2 and 3, serve as the core around which traumatic COEX systems later form.

Grof calls the ultimate phase of the LSD experience the transpersonal. Here the individual has experiences that transcend the normal boundaries of human life: identification with ancestors, whether human or animal, acute consciousness of biological, geological, or cosmic processes, extra-sensory perception, "time-travel", collective consciousness, encounter with divine beings, archetypal experiences, and mystical consciousness of or unity with the totality of existence.

Grof is a superb writer. His style is erudite, direct, and clear, and he presents his observations in a very well-organized way. His descriptions of various extraordinary experiences are brief but highly illuminating and worth revisiting. He manages to pack a huge amount of insight into the 240 easily read pages of this book. He is aware of the enormous relevance and interest of the connections suggested by LSD users between various aspects of human experience, and he is able to give the reader a sense of this excitement without getting lost down any seductive trail of speculation. As a scientist Grof is aware that his observations are controversial. He frankly admits his own resistance to seeing what was happening. He doesn't pretend to offer a decision about the objective status of various experiences, although he suggests that in many cases LSD users appear to have access to verifiable information that they could not have accessed otherwise. This seems to be particularly the case with archetypal experiences relating to various myths and religions. But he is willing to present his observations as areas in need of more research.

I have only two criticisms of this book. One is that Grof's theorized map of LSD experiences could have benefited from more documentation or quantification. That is, it would have been useful if Grof had at some point during his research, or after the fact using the relevant documents, attempted to produce some kind of statistical analysis of the record experiences. This book was not intended as research per se, but it could have been interesting and persuasive to see some preliminary date, for instance what percentage of LSD sessions included each type of experience and how that make up changed as patients had more sessions. A related criticism is that I would like to have learned a little more about Grof's theory of progression across LSD sessions. He tells us for instance that after the birth/death experiences are "worked through," they cease to appear in subsequent sessions. Grof is primarily giving the reader a descriptive classification of these experiences, but I was curious to learn more of his thoughts about why there would be such a progression of material in these sessions.

Sakeeb Rahman