Pioneer of Hallucinogen Research and Psycholytic Therapy
Torsten Passie, M.D., M.A.
Hanscarl Leuner was born in January 1918 in the City of Bautzen in
Germany. He was the only child of a leatherware factory owner. His father
intended for him to take over the factory, but after going through three
years of training as a harness maker there were some doubts about his
qualifications as a businessman.
In searching for his own field of interest Leuner became interested in
psychotherapy. Upon meeting him, the prominent psychologist Fritz
Künkel recommended that he should study medicine-and "forget the
half of it afterwards"-and to go through the educational process of a
He studied medicine at Frankfurt University and Marburg University
(1939-1946), interrupted by his military service in World War II. In these
years he studied the autogenic training methods developed by J.H. Schultz
and the medical psychology of Ernst Kretschmer. From these two approaches
Leuner set up his special interest in mental imagery and "catathymic
influences," or the interaction of mental contents and emotional
In 1946 he began his educational psychoanalysis with the Jungian
psychotherapist Professor Dr. Schmaltz. This humorous and very human
teacher facilitated Leuner's interest in the action of dream symbolism and
the power of so-called transference in psychotherapy.
His clinical education in psychiatry and neurology was influenced by two
major impressions: the assimilation of the subtle psychopathological
approach of his teacher, Klaus Conrad ("conditional-genetical and
functional psychopathology"), on which he later based his monograph
about experimental psychoses; and the curious opposition of most of his
psychiatric colleagues against psychotherapy. The latter led him to make
attempts to prove the principles and efficacy of psychotherapy in a
scientific manner. After a short period of orientation his special
interest focused on the symbolization processes in dreams and daydreams.
In the periphery of the literature he found a reference about inducing
daydreams with imaginative elements in a conventional psychoanalytic
couch- setting. Consequently, he conducted a series of experiments about
the relationship of emerging symbol-constellations in mental imagery and
the basic conflicts of the individual. In this process he discovered the
potent therapeutic effectiveness of psychotherapy with guided daydreams.
Later, he facilitated the process by giving the patients standard motifs
such as "mountain," "river," or "flower" to
start their imaginary trip with. In the early fifties, he developed a
standardized treatment technique based on this research, and named it
"Guided Affective Imagery."
Leuner's personal capacity to observe sensitively and subtly describe
intrapsychic emotional processes made him able to use mental imagery to
stimulate emotional catharsis, in contrast to the mostly cognitive verbal
As a result of his experiments with guided mental imagery, Leuner
developed in 1955 the idea of intensifying and facilitating cathartic
emotional processes by the use of low doses of LSD-25, which was known at
that time to induce daydream-like states of consciousness and nonspecific
affective stimulation. Over the next five years, he conducted more than
1,300 individual sessions with different hallucinogens (LSD, mescaline,
psilocybin, atropin derivatives, etc.) with neurotic patients and normal
volunteers. Through precise observation of these experiments he gained the
empirical foundations for his principal model in his monograph, The
Experimental Psychosis (1962). Leuner used the most advanced
psychopathological approach of his time to theorize about the LSD
reaction-not because this elaborate theorizing seemed most appropriate to
him, but mainly because it seemed to be the only possible way to bring the
unusual experiences of his subjects to the attention of the scientific
community. His strictly scientific model should also serve to demonstrate
that these experiences have their own specific laws and structures which
can be conceptualized by accepted psychopathological theories and could be
controlled by educated physicians.
One of the main concepts derived from this comprehensive study was the
empirical consideration of three different courses which the LSD reaction
can take: the continuous-scenic course, the stagnant-fragmentary course,
and the extreme psychotic course.
It is not possible here to go into detail about them, but the main
importance of this empirical finding lies in the fact that the type of
course is mainly a function of the dose of the substance, provided the
setting is safe. This means the principal course of the experience can be
controlled by individually adjusted doses. This is especially important in
psycholytic therapy where it is necessary to retain an
"ego-residue" in the patient to make him able to reflect and
partially control the ongoing experience. This is possible only in the
"continuous-scenic course." In view of the psycholytic pioneers
only this course with its specific attributes is usable for therapeutic
processing and allows the patients to explore their unconscious freely and
without dangers of (re-traumatizing) overstimulation.
A relationship of trust between the doctor and patient and a warm
atmosphere of the treatment facilities are also necessary for healing.
Another main concept of Leuner's comprehensive monograph is the
"Psychotoxic basic syndrome" which characterizes the basic
psychopathological features of the LSD reaction:
- Functional regression of psychic functioning to earlier stages.
- Changes in consciousness from normal waking consciousness to
"protopathic" consciousness (Conrad) which implies stronger
involvement of emotions in determining perceptions and contents of
consciousness and autosymbolic visual imagery. Leuner made scientifically
evident the similarity of contents and symbolization processes in
hypnagogic imagery and the "continuous-scenic" course of
low-dose hallucinogenic drugs.
- Amplification of endogenous stimuli-production, especially sensory
alterations and nonspecific affective stimulation.
Another intention of Leuner's work was to prove the close relationship
between the contents of hallucinogen-induced experiences and the history
of the individual. For this purpose, serial sessions with neurotic
patients were especially useful and led him to the first publication,
Psychotherapy in Model-Psychoses, in 1959. The patterns of emergence of
events from the patient's personal history seemed to be astonishingly
consistent. Leuner conceptualized this coherence in upcoming unconscious
conflicts in respect to memories as generated by "transphenomenal
dynamic guiding systems." These systems constellate complexes of
memory material and emotions and structure the emerging unconscious
material in the psycholytic process. This concept is related to the
"psychic complexes" of Eugen Bleuler and Sigmund Freud. Later
the famous LSD therapist Stanislav Grof hypothesized about "systems
of condensed experiences" (COEX- systems)" which may try to
explain the same thing. This obvious involvement of coherent personal
contents in psycholytic experiences strictly differentiated these states
from other types of "exogenous psychoses," i.e. psychoses
produced by massive biochemical aberrations of organismic functioning.
In 1960 Leuner transferred from Marburg to Gšttingen University and
established a psychotherapy department there. Impressed by the therapeutic
possibilities of hallucinogen-assisted psychotherapy, Leuner initiated in
1960 the First European Symposium on Psychotherapy under LSD-25 at
Gšttingen University. Experienced colleagues came from Denmark, the
Netherlands, England, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Italy and Germany. At this
occasion the leading psycholytic therapist from England Ronald Sandison
proposed the name "psycholysis" (i.e. "soul-loosening) or
"psycholytic therapy" for the new method which was unanimously
accepted by all participants. This term is still in use in Europe today.
The next European symposium, Hallucinogenic Drugs and Their
Psychotherapeutic Use, was initiated by the British Royal Medico-
psychological Association in London in 1961. After this meeting, Leuner
tried to organize interested psychotherapists in the European Medical
Society of Psycholytic Therapy (EPT) which was founded in 1964. At this
time psycholytic therapy was practiced in 18 European treatment centers
and by many out-patient private-practice psychotherapists. It seemed to be
a scientifically established effective and safe treatment with an
extremely promising future. In many severely disturbed neurotic patient,
to which most psycholytic therapists devoted their efforts, the new method
proved to be especially effective.
In 1965, when the nonmedical use of psychedelics reached its first height,
Leuner was invited by the American National Institute of Mental Health
(NIMH) to do expert evaluations on the few remaining American research
projects involving hallucinogens. Unfortunately, at the end of the
sixties, in the emerging world of drug hysteria and governmental
suppression of legitimate research, most researchers world-wide were
"voluntarily" leaving their original field of investigation
because of negative headlines about LSD and moral recriminations by their
colleagues. Out of that reason the EPT was dissolved after its fifth
symposium in 1971.
Nevertheless, Leuner retained his license until his retirement in 1986.
Ever since he became a professor at Gšttingen University in 1965, his
daily routine included psycholytic therapy at his psychotherapy
department. He focused on the treatment of so-called
"therapy-resistant" chronic severely neurotic patients and
developed the "stationary interval treatment," where the patient
is in out-patient psychotherapy and is only briefly hospitalized for the
psycholytic sessions. In this way the patients can be observed long enough
after enough session at a lower cost. A similar model was practiced at
many British "day hospitals" during the sixties.
Leuner also conducted basic research on different topics with normal
volunteers and patients. There is not enough space here to show the broad
scope of research with hallucinogens conducted by Leuner and his
colleagues at his department but here is a list of major projects:
- consciousness disorders in experimental psychoses;
- toxic ecstasy in intercultural perspective;
- therapeutic mechanisms of psycholytic therapy;
- oral regression under the influence of hallucinogens (dissertation by
- the womb and birth motif in experimental psychoses (dissertation by
- international review of evaluation studies of psycholytic therapy
(dissertation by Mascher 1966);
- clinical safety and psychopathological studies of the psilocybin
derivatives CZ-74 and CEY-19 (dissertation by Baer, 1967);
- similarities of low-dose experimental psychoses and beginning
schizophrenia (dissertation by Schšnfelder, 1967);
- chromosome studies in psilocybin patients, problems of misuse of LSD;
- significance of hallucinogenic experiences for the psychology of religion
(book by Josuttis/Leuner, 1972);
- catamnesis efficacy studies of the psycholytic patients in his
department (dissertations by Mascher, 1966, and Schultz-Wittner, 1989);
- experiential contents of the anal phase of psychic development in
psycholytic therapy (dissertation by Adler, 1981);
- dream-like experiences under the effects of ketamine (dissertation by
Bolle, 1985); and
- psychotropic effects and therapeutic use of the phenethylamine DMM-
PEA (LE-25) (dissertation project by Schlichting, 1985).
Most research was published in international journals and Leuner's
monograph entitled Halluzinogene (1981). Of special significance for the
future may be Leuner's meticulous studies into the efficacy of psycholytic
therapy and the introduction of the short-acting substances CZ-74 (a
psilocybin derivative) and LE-25 (a phenethylamine). Both are easy to use
and produce virtually no side-effects. They seem to be the ideal
substances for future applications of psycholytic therapy. Unfortunately
Leuner's attempts to use MDMA in psychotherapy studies were rejected by
the German Ministry of Health in 1985.
Beyond his hallucinogen research, especially since this research was
internationally restricted, Leuner was very engaged in propagating and
establishing his "Guided Affective Imagery" psychotherapy system
in the German-speaking countries. He founded a central organization,
created standardized education guidelines, held workshops and published
steadily on the subject. Today, this system is well established in the
German psychotherapeutic community. His books about it are translated into
Since the middle of the seventies, he also put much energy into the
creation of an electronically-aided respiratory feedback system (RFB).
This device was developed to help psychosomatic patients to reach states
of deep relaxation similar to those achieved with autogenic training in a
minimal time-span. Until now, this "non-pharmacological
medicine" proved to be an effective treatment for cases of
hypertonia, neurotic anxiety, sleep disturbances, terminal pain and other
tension states. In the past ten years he conducted some scientific studies
and wrote a new book about this method. Leunomed respiration feedback
devices are used by approx. 4,000 physicians in Europe and the United
States today. In 1985, together with other important researchers in the
field, Leuner founded the European College for the Study of Consciousness
(ECSC) and acted as its president. This international organization brought
researchers together to share information, organize congresses and educate
the general public (see MAPS newsletter, Vol. 4, no. 4, Spring 1994).
Since its founding, the ECSC has initiated seven symposia on specific
topics and two major international Worlds of Consciousness congresses.
From 1991- 1996, Leuner and Michael Schlichting, MD edited the Yearbook of
the ECSC. In his seventies, Leuner was still doing psycholytic work, when
I had the opportunity to work with him for some time. It was an
elucidating experience, because he knew how to create the the necessary
warm and comfortable atmosphere in his treatment rooms and in his handling
of patients, who came in a range of characters, professions and ages. Most
of them suffered from severe neurotic disturbances and couldn't be treated
by conventional methods.
His personal appearance was that of a wise old man. Thanks to his
unfaltering sense of humor and willingness to approach individual problems
with empathy, he helped many patients out of their negative "father
transferences." He had a special kind of relaxed attentive
seriousness which helped patients to work through their experiences and
problems. Interacting with his patients with a youthful and humorous
temperament, he organized the therapeutic processing with playful
authority and unconventionality.
He suffered a heart attack in February, and after recovering from it he
developed other health problems in June and died after a short time of
In his late years, the grandfather of psycholytic therapy was still sad
about the fate of this powerful method of therapy and hoped for a more
serious public assessment in the future. The future will show if his
hopes, partly embodied in the European College for the Study of
Consciousness, will be fulfilled.
- Die Experimentelle Psychose. Berlin/Gšttingen/Heidelberg,
1962; Second ed. Berlin, 1996.
- Halluzinogene. Bern/Stuttgart/Vienna, 1981.
- Guided Affective Imagery: Mental Imagery in Short-Term Psychotherapy.
New York, 1984.
- Effects of Psychotomimetics. In: Kline, N.S. & Lehmann, H.E. (eds.):
International Psychiatry Clinics: Practical aspects of pharmacotherapy.
New York, 1965.
- Basic Functions Involved in Psychotherapeutic Effects of
Psychotomimetics. In: Brill, H. & Cole, J.C. et al. (eds.):
Neuropsychopharmacology. Amsterdam,1967; pp. 445-448.
- Hallucinogens as an aid in psychotherapy: Basic principles and
results. In: Pletscher, A., Ladewig, D. (eds.): 50 Years of LSD. Current
Status and Perspectives of Hallucinogens. New York/London 1994, pp.
- The role of imagery in psychotherapy. In: Arieti, S., Chrzanowski, G.
(eds.): New Dimensions in Psychiatry: A World View. New
- Guided Affective Imagery: An Account of its Developmental History.
In: J. of Mental Imagery 1 (1977), pp. 73ff.