Psychonautics (from the Ancient Greekψυχήpsychē "soul, spirit, mind" and ναύτηςnaútēs "sailor, navigator" – "a sailor of the soul") refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, especially an important subgroup called holotropic states, including those induced by meditation or mind-altering substances, and to a research cabal in which the researcher voluntarily immerses themselves into an altered mental state in order to explore the accompanying experiences.
The term psychonautics derives from the prior term psychonaut, usually attributed to German author Ernst Jünger who used the term in describing Arthur Heffter in his 1970 essay on his own extensive drug experiences Annäherungen: Drogen und Rausch (literally: "Approaches: Drugs and Inebriation"). In this essay, Jünger draws many parallels between drug experience and physical exploration—for example, the danger of encountering hidden "reefs."
Clinical psychiatrist Jan Dirk Blom describes psychonautics as denoting "the exploration of the psyche by means of techniques such as lucid dreaming, brainwave entrainment, sensory deprivation, and the use of hallucinogenics or entheogens", and a psychonaut as one who "seeks to investigate their mind using intentionally induced altered states of consciousness" for spiritual, scientific, or research purposes.
Psychologist Dr. Elliot Cohen of Leeds Metropolitan University and the UK Institute of Psychosomanautics defines psychonautics as "the means to study and explore consciousness (including the unconscious) and altered states of consciousness; it rests on the realization that to study consciousness is to transform it." He associates it with a long tradition of historical cultures worldwide. Leeds Metropolitan University is currently the only university in the UK to offer a module in Psychonautics.
American Buddhist writer Robert Thurman depicts the Tibetan Buddhistmaster as a psychonaut, stating that "Tibetan lamas could be called psychonauts, since they journey across the frontiers of death into the in-between realm."
The aims and methods of psychonautics, when state-altering substances are involved, is commonly distinguished from recreational drug use by research sources. Psychonautics as a means of exploration need not involve drugs, and may take place in a religious context with an established history. Cohen considers psychonautics closer in association to wisdom traditions and other transpersonal and integral movements.
However, there is considerable overlap with modern drug use and due to its modern close association with psychedelics and other drugs, it is also studied in the context of drug abuse from a perspective of addiction, the drug abuse market and online psychology, and studies into existing and emerging drugs within toxicology.
The San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi) has been used for healing and religious divination in the Andes Mountains region for over 3000 years.
Icaros, which are the songs (i.e. something verbal that is ordinarily perceived as an auditory sensation) the Ayahuasceros sing to induce pictorial representations, rich tapestries of colors and patterns that are visually seen by the listener. (See: synesthesia) The ayahuasca ingredient, harmine, was once known as telepathine because of this group-facilitated activity of singing icaros and the shared perception it cultivates. A shaman who is one of the Ayahuascero people is expected to memorize as many icaros as they can.
Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) refers to all forms of music-imaging in an expanded state of consciousness, including not only the specific individual and group forms that music therapist and researcher Helen Bonny developed, but also all variations and modifications in those forms created by her followers.
These may be used in combination; for example, traditions such as shamanism may combine ritual, fasting, and hallucinogenic substances.