Remembering the ‘Marsh Chapel Experiment’

Marsh Chapel is a beacon in the center of the Charles River campus. As students of BU, we pass it on a daily basis, and it is a constant sight in our daily travels. We don’t question its purpose or its presence, or its history.

But if we were quizzed on that history, how much of us really know much about it?

On Good Friday in 1962, something now referred to as The Marsh Chapel Experiment occurred in the basement of the same chapel we pass every day walking to class. 20 undergraduate men, all theology students around the Boston area pursuing ministry, were involved in this double-blind study. Half of the group received a placebo pill, while the other half received a psilocybin pill (magic mushrooms). Some of the noted effects of this drug are similar to that of LSD, and include euphoria, dissociative states (also called “out of body” experiences), mental and visual hallucinations, and even spiritual experiences. Congress would later outlaw psilocybin in 1970 along with all other psychedelic drugs. A year later they were banned from being used in research nearly everywhere. This was one of the last experiments of its kind for decades.

Professor Timothy Leary of Harvard University and Walter Pahnke, a graduate student at Harvard at the time, led the experiment. “In order to use your head, you have to use your mind,” Leary had said. He set out to discover whether or not, if people were put in the right situation and given this drug, they could be induced into having religious experiences.

Among the group that received the psilocybin pill was Mike Young, now Reverend of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tampa, Florida. He recalled his experience decades ago, as he and other participants sat below the Chapel listening to organ music and the choir. The voice of the preacher, Howard Thurman, who served as Dean of Chapel from 1953-1965, echoed through the speakers delivering a Good Friday sermon.

“Interesting ideas began going off in my head. Sometimes it was hard to pay attention to what was going on… and we slid gently right into the psilocybin experience.” Young described the visual effect as very powerful. He hasn’t forgotten his hallucinations and experiences to this very day.

“I was in the middle of a technicolor sea and there were bars of color, and I was floating through them and they were floating through me–and it was just glorious.”

“The bars of color then resolved into a wheel, and I was at the center. There was a different color going out from me in every possible direction… I realized I had to swim out one of those color bars. Each of those color bars would be a whole different life experience… I had to choose one, and I couldn’t. It was very painful, it felt like my insides were being ripped out of me, and I died.”

Reverend Mike Young says this experience was one of the deciding factors that led to him ultimately entering ministry, as he had been experiencing doubts prior to the experiment. He interestingly points out how nine out of the 10 men who received the psilocybin pill ended up becoming ministers, while none of the men in the placebo group did.

Does this mean that a psychedelic drug can, in fact, induce a religious experience powerful enough to influence these men and the course of their lives? Some may critique this study, saying the sample size was too small for any significant results, or that since these men were religiously inclined already, it may have been slightly biased.

Connor Wood, a PhD student in the School of Theology studying religion and science, weighs in on the significance of this study. He calls the event “groundbreaking” and says that he believes “psychedelics can unlock these profound religious experiences… one of the most important features of these experiences is not how they feel while they’re happening but what kinds of effects they have on their experiences down the line–even if they don’t explicitly believe they’ve touched a spiritual realm.”

Most similar to these experiences are accounts of near-death experiences, says Wood. He describes the after-effect as having one’s “consciousness radically expanded during the experience, such that they understand cosmic and metaphysical truths which they later find impossible to put into words. And many, if not most, near-death experience survivors report feeling more compassionate, patient, and caring in the months and years following the experience.”

This type of spiritual revelation, whether induced through psychedelic drugs or a near-death experience, ultimately impacts one’s personality. Dr. Roland Griffiths of John’s Hopkins University performed a follow-up study to the Marsh Chapel Experiment several years ago. His results yielded the conclusion that it serves as a “rearranging experience,” and that it can even rewire one’s personality.

Such a profound conclusion like that could open doors for the future of psychedelic drug research, and even research on how the effects of these powerful substances correlate to the aftermath of near-death experiences. The Marsh Chapel Experiment has been an intriguing story that has gained public attention and piqued student interest in the campus building. More importantly, though, the results have been important in the decades since and will continue to serve as a basis for further understandings about religion and science in the future.

Site of the famous Marsh Chapel Experiment. I  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user John Phelan
Site of the famous Marsh Chapel Experiment. I Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user John Phelan

About Aria Ruggiero

Aria is a Junior in CAS studying Psychology. She enjoys writing and photographing for the Quad, as well as having an unhealthy obsession with guacamole, blazers, and the Yankees.

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