Studies of extrasensory perception (ESP) are often dismissed as pseudoscience, and certainly a measure of disbelief suspension is needed not to laugh at the idea. But others take it very seriously, like The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. He was rightfully entranced by the idea considering the ecstatic cult of personality surrounding the band, reportedly based on some indescribable line of communication between the Dead and their loyal devotees. Garcia was so interested in ESP that in 1971 he collaborated with two researchers, Stanley Krippner and Montague Ullman, to set up an experiment using his concert audiences to explore telepathy.
The methodology of the research, which is subject to the same skepticism that surrounds any parapsychological endeavor, was based on smaller studies that Krippner and Ullman had done exploring ESP. These early experiments involved seeing whether sleeping people are more receptive of ideas suggested by others than waking people are.
The ether through which all of this information passes is called psi-gamma. It’s the inexplicable conduit for telepathic signals, sort of like the plasma in which blood cells flow. Krippner and Ullman believe that people engage with psi-gamma most easily during a rapid eye movement (REM) cycle. Indeed, all of their work was predicated on the idea that research subjects, as Krippner put it in his essay “A Pilot Study in Dream Telepathy with the Grateful Dead,” would be able to “frequently recall dream episodes [when] awakened from periods of [REM] activity.”
The studies began with attaching a “telepathic receiver” to various sensors to monitor sleep cycles and track the occurrence of REM. In the meantime, a “telepathic sender” would be emitting a targeted psi-gamma beam of information, either to the general universe or directly at the telepathic receiver, in the form of a randomly selected image. Researchers would wake up the receiver at certain points during the REM cycle so they could report their dreams. As if straight out of a Michel Gondry movie, the transcription was then sent to independent judges who determined whether or not the content of the “dream report” was probabilistically related or unrelated to the image that the sender had projected.
Krippner says that these dream studies reported “statistically significant results” and that he and Ullman wanted to find out if the effect would be even stronger with the involvement of more senders. They decided to collaborate with psychedelic folk group the Holy Modal Rounders and put on a show where the audience would function as the senders.
The researchers had an artist string up lights and ready seven projectors to present the audience with the surprise image they’d need to project. Making a creative and trippy atmosphere wasn’t just some fun '70s activity. It also tied into earlier research about extrasensory perception, studies that showed that being on psilocybin, acid, mescaline, the mushroom amanita muscaria and even cannabis can cause an increase in psi-related abilities.
Clearly trippiness and its apparent ability to stimulate psi conductivity is what researchers were looking to harness at the Holy Modal Rounders concert. At midnight the artist “gave the audience brief verbal directions before the target [images—eagles, birds, and a phoenix—] was flashed on the screen by means of a movie projector and six slide projectors.” The band played their song “If You Want to Be a Bird” while the room full of telepathic senders sent out images to the five designated receivers sleeping in a 100 mile radius of the Manhattan concert.
The results suggested to Krippner and Ullman that “future directions to the audience [should be] more explicit” and that the audience should know “the location of at least one telepathic receiver.” The next move, they decided, was to go big.
The Grateful Dead
In February of 1971, the Grateful Dead were on tour playing six shows in Port Chester, New York, close to the medical center in Brooklyn where Krippner and Ullman were doing their research. At the time the band’s lineup consisted of Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron McKernon, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia, “who had originally suggested the project to [Krippner].”
The researchers decided that the Dead’s concerts would have exactly the sort of ESP-conducting energy needed to achieve peak psi communication between the two telepathic receivers and the 2,000 person audience. Researchers decided that a man named Malcolm Bessent would be the participant whose location was revealed while the other subject’s existence and whereabouts were kept unknown.
Concertgoers were shown this set of messages:
YOU ARE ABOUT TO PARTICIPATE IN AN ESP EXPERIMENT.
IN A FEW SECONDS YOU WILL SEE A PICTURE.
TRY USING YOUR ESP TO “SEND” THIS PICTURE TO MALCOLM BESSENT.
HE WILL TRY TO DREAM ABOUT THIS PICTURE. TRY TO “SEND” IT TO HIM.
MALCOLM BESSENT IS NOW AT THE MAIMONIDES DREAM LABORATORY IN BROOKLYN.
Every night a different randomly selected art print, which the audience was meant to convey to Bessent, was projected onto the stage.
On four out of six nights, Bessent’s dream reports got the highest “transcript-target pair” score, a measure of how close the dream was to the projected images, while the other participant only achieved this score once. “There are only 12 chances out of 100 that [Bessent’s] result could have been obtained by coincidence,” wrote Krippner.
One night the image was The Seven Spinal Chakras, a picture of a person floating on the page in the lotus position labeled with the Ayurvedic energy points. Bessent reported a dream where he said he “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.… He was suspended in mid-air or something.”
The other participant’s scores were explained away with the theory that, because “telepathic ability is not constant,” it’s “possible that February 1971 was not the optimal time of ‘psi’ functioning [for her].” Krippner explained that “considerably more work needs to be done to determine if two thousand telepathic transmitters are better than one.”
“An Updated Review of Dream ESP Studies Conducted Since the Maimonides Dream ESP Program” by Simon J. Sherwood and Chris A. Roe, a retrospective look at Krippner and Ullman’s work, criticizes the Grateful Dead study lightly. It suggests that the timing of the sent telepathic messages and the consequential wakings might not have coincided “with the receivers’ REM periods.” But Sherwood and Roe still seem hopeful, finding the overall telepathic success rate of the Maimonides ESP trials to be 63 percent. There are “odds of 75 million to one against achieving such a result by chance.”
Perhaps despite the skepticism, there might be something to what Krippner and Ullman had been investigating. People have widely reported having mystical experiences and going into “ecstatic trances” at Grateful Dead concerts (though the acid naturally helped), and by parapsychological terms, this must mean that the events harbored some unusual energy.
Certainly we know enough to believe that there are things in space and earth that we are as yet unaware of—so why couldn’t extrasensory perception be one of these? In addition to being on something, Jerry Garcia might have also been onto something.