Review of "Human Nature and the Nature of Reality:

Conceptual Challenges from Consciousness Research"

by Stanislav Grof, M.D.

Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 30, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 1998

Reviewed by Robert Keil, Ph.D.


Stanislav Grof has been called "arguably the world’s greatest living psychologist" by philosopher Ken Wilber. Beginning in the 1950’s with experiments using LSD, Grof is the author of a large body of work that forms the foundation of the transpersonal psychology field. This form of psychology grew out of a reaction to the behaviorist view of human nature and to the limitations of Freudian psychology. Transpersonal psychology is "the study of experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, pysche, and cosmos."*

As is detailed in "LSD psychotherapy", Grof began using LSD with patients and healthy subjects in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s. He was struck by his subject’s experiences and how difficult it was to explain them using the tools of mid-century European science. In particular, many patients seemed to relive birth trauma and reported vivid and detailed descriptions of their actual births, with details that could be verified by interviews with parents and by examining hospital records.

Grof used these observations as the basis for developing what he calls the Basic Perinatal Matrixes (BPM), a set of four stages that relate to the birth process. The BPM constitutes a cornerstone of Grof’s system of psychology. In addition, he is intensely interested in what he calls "systems of condensed experiences" (COEX) which are "emotionally-charged memories from different periods of our life that resemble each other in the quality of emotion or physical sensation that they share (p. 346)." ** Often, the COEX is referred to as a "constellation" of emotionally relevant memories that are stored together. Traumatic events, breathwork or other powerful life experiences can serve to release these energies in ways that can be channeled into constructive pathways. In particular, LSD can bring up these events and allow unconscious material to be brought up and dealt with.

The article serves as an excellent short introduction to Grof’s work. Although it is written in a somewhat academic style, it nevertheless is quite readable and easy to follow. He begins by explaining the need for transpersonal psychology, considering the vast variety of important experiences that are not explained by the narrative psychology of the classical Freudian model. He moves to explaining in more detail the nature of the four BPM’s and how various pathologies can arise from experiences in biological birth. Resolving these four areas of experience can lead to healing and life changing experiences. Grof claims that " a fully-conscious experience of the contents of this domain of the psyche with good subsequent integration can have far-reaching consequences and lead to spiritual opening and deep personal transformation (p. 350)."** …Lastly, the article concludes by questioning the modern belief that all mental phenomenon are exclusively based in the brain.

Unlike more traditional psychotherapy, transpersonal therapy and work with holotropic states "reveals many important additional mechanisms of healing and personality transformations that become available when our consciousness reaches the perinatal and transpersonal levels (p. 353).**

Sadly, much of the work conducted safely in Grof’s practice would be all but impossible to conduct today given our current government’s stance on psychedelic research. When discussing the BPM and patients that have had these profound experiences, one cannot help realize that the tools that allowed this important work to arise have been declared off-limits. This prohibition on research has prevented other researchers from more widely reproducing Grof’s work. This seems to have led to a certain degree of dismissal when examining his work. Wilber*** tends to preface his discussion of Grof’s work with comments like "if this work is accurate."

Another problem that arises when reading Grof is the possibility that he is reading too much into the examples of those who relived their birth. Grof obviously places great emphasis of the birth experience; this however is most likely the natural tendency to focus on a novel, unexplained phenomena. The reader is often left with questions about the effects of Cesarean birth on the psyche, or whether large surveys of people who had had traumatic births would reveal a higher incidence of various psychopathologies. But even given these problems, it is clear that the examination of these memories is of profound importance to understanding the mind. The mere fact that these memories exist is an important challenge to conventional psychology and an impetus for further research.

Interested readers are directed to Stanislav Grof's books Beyond the Brain (1985), which discusses in great detail the BPM and COEX as they apply to psychotherapy, The Adventure of Self-Discovery (1988), which elaborates his non-pharmacological approaches to inner exploration, and Realms of the Human Unconsciousness: Observations from LSD Research (1976), a detailed account of Dr. Grof’s pioneering LSD therapy.


*Vaughan, F. and Walsh, R., editors (1993). Paths beyond ego. N.Y.: G. P. Putnam's Sons, p. 3.

** Grof, S. (1998). Human nature and the nature of reality: conceptual challenges from consciousness research. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Vol. 30, No. 4.

*** Rothberg, D. and Kelly, S., editors (1998). Ken Wilber in dialogue. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.


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