If one wished to study the effects of a psychoactive drug such as LSD, what strikes me as a natural primary starting point would be to ask participants what they actually experienced. For example, they could write a page in response to a simple question about what the experience was like.

The results could then be analyzed using an approach such as natural language processing, to find common themes in reported effects. This analysis would then be open to peer-review and replication.

Is this a method of research that anyone currently practices in psychology?

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    $\begingroup$ What prior research have you done, what did you find, and where are you still stuck and wondering? $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 5, 2022 at 22:19

2 Answers 2


In terms of measurement methodology, research is divided into the standard quantitative, and alternative, qualitative research:

Qualitative research relies on data obtained by the researcher from first-hand observation, interviews, questionnaires (on which participants write descriptively), focus groups, participant-observation, recordings made in natural settings, documents, case studies, and artifacts. The data are generally nonnumerical. ... Qualitative research methods have been used in sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, social work, and educational research.

Examples of techniques within the field of qualitative psychological research that are applicable to the study of psychoactive drug experiences, include thematic analysis (TA):

... one of the most common forms of analysis within qualitative research. It emphasizes identifying, analysing and interpreting patterns of meaning (or "themes") within qualitative data. ... Coding is the primary process for developing themes by identifying items of analytic interest in the data and tagging these with a coding label. ... there is a long tradition of using thematic analysis in phenomenological research. A phenomenological approach emphasizes the participants' perceptions, feelings and experiences as the paramount object of study.

And interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA):

... an approach to psychological qualitative research ... that ... aims to offer insights into how a given person, in a given context, makes sense of a given phenomenon. ... One might use IPA if one had a research question which aimed to understand what a given experience was like (phenomenology) and how someone made sense of it (interpretation). ... After transcribing the data, the researcher works closely and intensively with the text, ... the researcher catalogues the emerging codes, and subsequently begins to look for patterns in the codes. These patterns are called 'themes'. Themes are recurring patterns of meaning (ideas, thoughts, feelings) throughout the text.

Other common techniques that employ the analysis of free-form verbal reports include the thematic apperception test (TAT), and computer-aided text analysis (CATA). However, due to the nature of the phenomenology of psychedelics, it is also common to use a hermeneutic (interpretive) approach in that particular sub-field, rather than a thematic one.

For the example of what psychedelic experience is like, qualitative methods were more common in the early history of psychedelic research - "The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience" by Masters & Houston (1966) is a book full of free-form verbal reports collected and analyzed for this purpose. For more modern examples using qualitative methods to evaluate psychedelic experiences, see this list of papers from 2014-2019, using primarily TA and IPA (source: Breeksema et al, 2020).

I would speculate several reasons why qualitative research is less common in psychedelic research today than it was early on:

  • Qualitative methods are useful in basic research for generating more specific research questions. As the effects of psychedelics on experiences are quite well-known by now, the need for such research has declined.
  • As with most psychoactive drugs, psychedelic research is mostly focused on its potential therapeutic value, where quantitative methods are required for regulatory approval.
  • Psychedelics remain tightly controlled substances, limiting funding for basic research on questions that do not have direct practical applications.
  • Even in the relatively small sub-field of psychedelic research interested in experience (eg, to learn about how the mind works), quantitative methods are often preferred as they are less time-consuming (costly) to administer, and less challenging to validate, relative to qualitative ones.
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, this is a very good answer. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2022 at 16:52

I think to publish a subjective approach as you describe here in the scientific, peer-reviewed literature is going to be difficult. For one, people may have wildly differing subjective experiences to psychoactive compounds, and even within-subject experiences can differ on a day-to-day basis, dependent on mental well being, amount of sleep, ingestion of other active compounds, state of mind etc. Further, the legal status of psychoactive substances greatly inhibits research in the field. There is ongoing research despite regulatory restrictions, yet the main focus of these studies on psychoactive substances like MDMA are their use as treatment for mental ailments such as PTSD and depression (Griffiths & Grob, 2020).

Nonetheless, I think reporting subjective experiences to hallucinogens and related compounds is an interesting approach. It can hold scientific potential, especially when you start classifying and categorizing subjective experiences as you suggest.

A good place to start reading on documenting subjective experiences during and after the ingestion of psychoactive compounds are the works of the late Alexander Shulgin.

- Griffiths & Grob, Sci Am (December 2020 issue)
- Shulgin & Shulgin, PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Transform Press (1991)
- Shulgin & Shulgin, TIHKAL: The Continuation. TransformPress (1997)

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    $\begingroup$ Psychoactive, or psychedelic? There's a lot of work going on right now with psilocybin and LSD, not just MDMA, and narrative research is a pretty common qualitative research approach, that has certainly been applied to psychedelic research. I think OP is probably not appreciating how much these approaches have been used to build subsequent standardized questionnaires. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 7, 2022 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ I would love if you could elaborate on that. In other words, you think “questionnaires” are redeemed, because they are deeply epistemologically justified, in other words? $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2022 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterElbert I mean simply that, if you are referring to psychedelics as opposed to psychoactive compounds, the psychedelic questionaires I'm aware of were developed based on free reporting of psychedelic experiences. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 6, 2022 at 22:08

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