‘Pneumadelic’? Osmond, 1957: “my own preference being ‘psychelytic’, or ‘psychedelic’ ” /2 (2021)

“I believe that these agents have a part to play in our survival as a species”

by Federico Soldani – 26th May 2021

In the previous article on Dr. Osmond’s paper “A review of the clinical effects of psychotomimetic agents” (1957) in which he formally proposed for hallucinogens or psychotomimetics the names ‘psychelytic’ and especially ‘psychedelic’, I wondered whether a substance or a class of substances could be both psyche ‘lytic’ – dissolving – and ‘delic’ – manifesting. Following Eric Voegelin’s line of reasoning in “Science, Politics, and Gnosticism” (1959), I also wondered if instead of the psyche, such substances would in such view make manifest what, according to Voegelin, in a Gnostic worldview is the spirit – as distinct from the mind or psyche – which is also called pneuma.

Hence, instead of psychedelic or, perhaps more correctly, psychodelic, a more appropriate name could be pneumodelic or pneumadelic.


Osmond‘s 1957 paper on the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences acknowledged on the first page that funds were provided by The Rockefeller Foundation, New York.

It began with the following words: “We are using Gerard’s term “psychotomimetics” generically for compounds that have been called schizogens, psychotica, psychotogens, phantastica, hallucinogens, and elixirs.” Gerard‘s 1956 bibliographic reference was from “Neuropharmacology: Transactions of the Second Conference” Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, New York. This was the same foundation of the Macy conferences on cybernetics.


In his 1957 paper, Osmond wrote that (bold added for emphasis) “Psychotomimetic agents are substances that produce changes in thought, perception, mood and, sometimes, in posture, occurring alone or in concert, without causing” – this is in my view a truly interesting point he made here – “major disturbances of the autonomic nervous system.” He also noted how such agents were not causing addictive craving and “although, with overdosage, disorientation, memory disturbance, stupor, and even narcosis may occur, these reactions are not characteristic.”

“No account of model psychoses” – Osmond wrote- “would be complete that did not relate those that are induced chemically to those induced by other means, such as the reduced or specialized environments described by Heron, Bexton, and Hebb and by Lilly. These specialized environments have been used since antiquity, and they raise a host of questions, one of which is of sufficient urgency to discuss briefly. Most people can adjust themselves to small changes in perception quickly enough for these changes to be of no importance. There are a few situations in which even these small changes can be dangerous and, unless they are expected and sought for, they might not be recognized.” Then he mentioned the examples of high-speed flying and “flight into outer space.”

A search of the engine Google on the 25th of May 2021 of “reduced or specialized environment” (with either ‘and’ or ‘or’) only produced 4 results! One from the website hofmann.org of the Albert Hofmann Foundation, one on psilocybin-research.com reporting Osmond’s original 1957 article on the Annals of the NYAS, and two reporting the 1957 article by Osmond from the .pdf online version of the same book on two different websites (epdf.pub and cista.net): “LSD, the consciousness-expanding drug” edited by David Solomon and with an introduction by Timothy Leary, the media guru of LSD during the 60s and of the fusion of LSD and the digital world in the new cyber-psychedelic sub-culture of the 90s (see for instance A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by John Perry Barlow).

Just like astronauts, people using hallucinogens systematically call themselves psychonauts, see for instance Psychonautics. Psychonauts is also the name of a popular videogame originally released in 2005. And there are websites dedicated to this topic such as the Italian psiconauti.net where one of the articles published on PsyPolitics, the one about Frankl on LSD, was discussed, see Critica all’LSD – Psiconauti.

The experience of a sort of “reduced or specialized environment” might actually sound familiar in 2021 as hundreds of millions of citizens have experienced worldwide a more or less forced period of reduced mobility because of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic for instance as a result of political decisions driven by medical science related to lockdowns. Articles in the press have also made parallels between such experience, the experience with LSD and the one in outer space, see for instance the 25th April 2020 Opinion | When a Coronavirus Lockdown Resembles an LSD Trip – The New York Times (nytimes.com) or the 21st March 2020 Opinion | I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share – The New York Times (nytimes.com).

In a 1970 paper published in the journal Perception and Psychophysics, by G. Alfred Forsyth of the University of New Hampshire, entitled “Perceptual isolation effects: Short-term visual storage vs cognitive-perceptual structure”, the following was explained about some of the experiments by the key authors mentioned by Osmond (bold added for emphasis):

“Despite the epidemic of demonstrations since Heron et al (1953) hypothesized that varied sensory input was required for maintaining normal cognitive, motivational, and perceptual behavior, few investigators have shed light on the specific nature of the behavioral changes occurring as a consequence of perceptual isolation (Siprelle et al, 1963; Brownfield, 1964). The procedure of perceptual isolation is distinguished from that of sensory deprivation in that stimulation in the former is invariant, boring, and monotonous, while in sensory deprivation stimulation is absent or markedly reduced (Kubzansky, 1961). Hallucinations have been reported both after prolonged isolation (Bexton et al, 1954; Zuckerman et al, 1962) and after short periods of perceptual isolation (Cohen et al, 1959; Silverman et al, 1962; Reed & Kenna, 1964). One explanation of these reports of hallucinations postulated by Freedman (1961) was that, because isolation provides no useful information for spatial orientation, an active process interferes with and degrades existing schemata so that the system is dominated by a “noisy” discharge of retinal ganglion cells. This is assumed to be disorienting and distorts the perceptual process.”


The substances in question” – Osmond wrote – “can be used to develop very high degrees of that mysterious yet vital quality – empathy. Shall we find a means by which the therapist will share, to a far greater degree than he commonly does now, his patient’s experience?”

Such journey of self-discovery may one day be obligatory for those working in psychiatry” Osmond added.

We have already briefly discussed on PsyPolitics different political aspects of “empathy” about Masserman’s studies, about its relation with hallucinogens (at 1 hour and 55 minutes into a May 2020 webinar) and studies to some extent related to this, as well as when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, then President and Vice-President elect respectively, gave the victory speech under the slogan “The People have chosen Empathy.”

De Waal recently commented in a review of the scientific literature on the evolution of empathy: “Perhaps the most compelling evidence for emotional contagion came from Wechkin et al. (1964) and Masserman et al. (1964), who found that monkeys refuse to pull a chain that delivers food to them if doing so delivers an electric shock to and triggers pain reactions in a companion.”


In an Epilogue to his 1957 paper, Osmond remarked once more and quite powerfully the broader political meaning – already seen on PsyPolitics about the “father” of LSD Albert Hofmann – of the substances he proposed to call psychelytics or psychedelics: “I believe that these agents have a part to play in our survival as a species.”

(2 – second of a series, previous article here)

[Picture above taken from Citizen of Space (tumblr.com)]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "‘Pneumadelic’? Osmond, 1957: “my own preference being ‘psychelytic’, or ‘psychedelic’ ” /2 (2021)," in PsyPolitics, May 26, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/05/26/pneumadelic-osmond-1957-my-own-preference-being-psychelytic-or-psychedelic-2-2021/.

Last Updated on June 17, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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