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This article is about people who explore their inner psyche, and related practices. For other uses, see Psychonaut (disambiguation).
Illustration from The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Chinese book of alchemy and meditation.

Psychonautics (from the Greek ψυχή psychē ["soul", "spirit" or "mind"] and ναύτης naútēs ["sailor" or "navigator"] — "a sailor of the soul"[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 paradigm in which the researcher voluntarily immerses himself or herself 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] sensory deprivation,[1] and archaic/modern drug users who use entheogenic substances in order to gain deeper insights and spiritual experiences.[4] A person who uses altered states for such exploration is known as a psychonaut. Psychonauts are also described as forming a subculture.[5][6]

Etymology and categorization[edit]

The term psychonautics derives from the prior term psychonaut, usually attributed to German author Ernst Jünger who used the term in describing 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[edit]

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 hallucinogenics 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 Metropolitan 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 Metropolitan University is currently the only university in the UK to offer a module in Psychonautics.

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,[11] and studies into existing and emerging drugs within toxicology.[4]


The San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) has been used for healing and religious divination in the Andes Mountains region for over 3000 years.[12]

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

Psychonautic works and notable figures[edit]

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

One of the best known psychonautical works is Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception.[13][14][15][16] Aside of Ernst Jünger who coined the term, the American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, writer and inventor John C. Lilly is another well-known psychonaut.[17] He was concerned with the nature of consciousness and, amongst other things, used isolation tanks in his research.[18] 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.[14] Another influential psychonaut is the psychologist and writer Timothy Leary.[15] He is known for controversial talks and research on the subject and wrote several books including The Psychedelic Experience. Another widely known psychonaut is the American philosopher, ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author Terence McKenna.[19][20] He spoke and wrote about a variety of subjects, including psychedelic drugs, plant-based entheogens, shamanism, metaphysics, alchemy, language, culture, technology, and theoretical origins of human consciousness.


  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 2010-03-05. 
  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. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  3. ^ a b As noted by Flores, Ralph (2008). Buddhist scriptures as literature: sacred rhetoric and the uses of theory. ISBN 978-0-7914-7339-9. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  4. ^ a b van Riel (2007). "New Drugs of Abuse". Clinical Toxicology 45 (4): 372–3. doi:10.1080/15563650701284894. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  5. ^ "Adventures Through Inner Space: Meet the 'Psychonauts'". 28 November 2000. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  6. ^ "New Designer Drugs Are In Legal Gray Area". 4 June 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  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. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  8. ^ Carroll, Peter J. Liber Null. (1978) and Psychonaut. (1982) (published in one volume in 1987). ISBN 0-87728-639-6. 
  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. Retrieved 2010-03-05.  Cited by Blom, Jan Dirk (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. Springer. p. 434. ISBN 978-1-4419-1222-0. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  10. ^ a b UK Institute of Psychonautics and Somanautics page at his "Academy for Transpersonal Studies". Retrieved 10 March 2010. 
  11. ^ 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. Retrieved 2010-03-05. 
  12. ^ Bigwood, Jeremy; Stafford, Peter J. (1992). Psychedelics encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Pub. pp. 118–9. ISBN 0-914171-51-8. 
  13. ^ Dunne, Carey (30 July 2013). "See The Contest-Winning Cover For "Brave New World"". Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  14. ^ a b Doyle, Richard M. (2011). Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295990958. 
  15. ^ a b Carpenter, Dan (2006). A Psychonaut's Guide to the Invisible Landscape: The Topography of the Psychedelic Experience. Park Street Press. ISBN 978-1594770906. 
  16. ^ Jordison, Sam (26 January 2012). "The Doors of Perception: What did Huxley see in mescaline?". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  17. ^ Donaldson, Brian (16 January 2015). "Comedy review: Robin Ince, Edinburgh". The Scotsman. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  18. ^ Lilly, John C. (1956). "Mental Effects of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact, Healthy Persons" (PDF). Psychiatric Research Reports. 5. pp. 1–9. 
  19. ^ Richards, Chris (31 March 2014). "Sturgill Simpson: A country voice of, and out of, this world". Retrieved 16 June 2015. 
  20. ^ Harms, Shane (28 October 2014). "Fall brings a change in the climate of consciousness". Retrieved 16 June 2015. 

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