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The Grateful Dead Once Carried Out a (Successful) Dream Telepathy Experiment During Their Concerts

One of the most iconic studies in parapsychology is the decade-long ‘dream telepathy’ research conducted at the Maimonides Dream Laboratory from 1964 to 1974 (see the short documentary, “Transmitting Thought”, for more detail).

The experiments were carried out by a number of scientists, including legends of psi research Montague Ullman, Stanley Krippner, and Charles Honorton, and resulted in statistically significant evidence for ‘dream telepathy’: the researchers found that a telepathic sender (or ‘agent’) was able to transmit a ‘target stimulus’ to a sleeping subject in order to incorporate it into their dreams and report it upon waking (art prints were used as the ‘target stimuli’ to maximise the chances of archetypal themes, emotional feelings and/or vivid colours being transmitted).

An analysis of 83 pilot sessions between 1964 and 1969 confirmed the telepathy hypothesis at the .00001 level (that is, the sort of thing that might happen by chance one in a hundred thousand times).

The next step for the researchers was testing the effect of having a larger number of senders (agents) all sending the target to the subject at once. A pilot session on March 15, 1970 saw the entire audience of a concert by ‘The Holy Modal Rounders’ act as agents. They were given brief verbal instructions before visual sequences were shown to the audience featuring the target theme, birds, while the band played the song “If You Want to be a Bird”.

At the same time, five volunteer subjects – all located within a 100-mile radius of the concert – were told to be sleeping at the time of the concert and to record any dreams they had.

One subject reported the impression of “something mythological, like a griffin or a phoenix” – a phoenix was one of the symbols shown to depict the bird theme (“a polarized slide of a phoenix which appeared and disappeared in flames as the polarizer was moved”). Another reported dreaming the phoenix-like symbolism of “an embryo in flames, growing into a tree”. Two others were complete misses: “a snake”, and “grapes”. But the fifth subject – the legendary American singer Richie Havens – reported dream visuals of “a number of seagulls flying over water” (there were “various photographs of seagulls” in the visual sequences).

Based on this pilot study, the researchers decided to go ahead with a larger six-night study, while incorporating some changes to improve on the first attempt (more explicit directions to the audience; random target selection immediately before transmission to reduce the chance of leakage).

This time, however, the visual sequences would be shown to a much larger audience: at concerts played by The Grateful Dead.

For the six-night study, an attempt was made to use a large number of telepathic agents in a situation which would involve some of the emotional intensity which characterizes spontaneous instances of telepathic transmission. The entire audience attending concerts by The Grateful Dead, a rock-and-roll musical group, was instructed to telepathically transmit an art print which was randomly selected just before it was projected on a screen above the musical group while they were performing.

…Such art prints were utilized as “A Synthetic Emblematic Cross” and “The Seven Spinal Chakras”, both by the Armenian artist Scralian, and “The Castle of The Pyrenees” and “Philosophy in the Boudoir”, both by the French artist Magritte.

…Two “psychic sensitives”, Malcolm Bessent and Felicia Parise, served as subjects for this study. Both had participated in previous studies of extra-sensory effects at the Dream Laboratory.

Scralian's "The Seven Spinal Chakras"
Scralian’s “The Seven Spinal Chakras”

This wasn’t the first time the dream-telepathy researchers had employed the famous acid-rock band in their studies – the Dead’s music had previously been used in an ESP experiment performed at the ‘Dream lab’. Drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman also did another experiment with Krippner in which they played complicated poly-rhythms in synch with each other through “hypnotically-induced altered states of consciousness.”

And the Dead themselves were obviously no stranger to altered states of consciousness – they had experimented with LSD often in their career (they lived with Owsley himself for 3 months in 1966…), and played for Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Tests’ in California.

And it’s worth noting, the band even came up with their name via a DMT trip. According to late frontman Jerry Garcia:

Back in the late days of the Acid Tests, we were looking for a name. We’d abandoned The Warlocks, it didn’t fit anymore. One day we were all over at Phil’s house smoking DMT. He had a big Oxford dictionary,* opened it, and there was “grateful dead”, those words juxtaposed. It was one of those moments, y’know, like everything else on the page went blank, diffuse, just sorta oozed away, and there was GRATEFUL DEAD, big black letters edged all around in gold, man, blasting out at me, such a stunning combination. So I said, “How about Grateful Dead?” and that was it.

(* Actually since determined to be the Britannica World Language Edition of the Funk & Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary )

On each of the six nights, the audience of 2000 people – the majority of whom, the researchers note, “were in states of consciousness that had been dramatically altered” – were exposed to the target material at 11.30pm, while the psychic subjects were asleep. Six slides were presented, telling the audience:

  6. At this point, the randomly selected art print was projected on the screen.

(Felicia Parise wasn’t mentioned as the researchers were also studying the effect of intentionality on the audience’s part, seeing if only mentioning one of the subjects would have an effect.)

After the experiments were done, two judges were given the six transcripts for each subject and the six art prints used, with each evaluating the degree of correspondence between them on a 100-point scale.

The results: Felicia Parise’s transcripts were a bust, with only one transcript matching the artwok out of the six. But Malcolm Bessent’s results were far more interesting, with correct pairs four times out of six – a statistically significant result. The researchers offered an example of Bessent’s dream transcripts matching the target artwork “The Seven Spinal Chakras”:

I was very interested in…using natural energy… I was talking to this guy who said he’d invented a way of using solar energy and he showed me this box…to catch the light from the sun which was all we needed to generate and store the energy… I was discussing with this other guy a number of other areas of communication and we were exchanging ideas on the whole thing… He was suspended in mid-air or something… I was thinking about rocket ships… I’m remembering a dream I had…about an energy box and…a spinal column.

You can watch Stanley Krippner and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart discuss their experiments together (in retrospect, some three decades later) in the video below:

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