Experiential Typewriter

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"For us these neurological numbers take on the meaning of mantras" (Psychedelic Review, 70).

The "mantra" reprinted to the left corresponds to “astonishing statistics about the nervous system and potentialities of consciousness” (70). The ingestion of psychedelic foods or drugs supposedly allows us to tap into some of these neural activities that are repressed during regular cognitive action. Inability to symbolically convey subjective experiences during inebriation leads to a potential loss of qualitiative research data concerning psychedelic substances. Leary states that “We can think or speak at the rate of three words a second. That means that one – thousand-million-minus-three registrations cannot be communicated” (71). Albert Hofmann synthesized the chemical LSD-25 in 1940s Switzerland “within a systematic research program”; he ends the notes of his first self-experiment:

Supplement of 4/21  : Home by bicycle. From 18:00 to ca. 20:00 most severe crisis. (See special report)

and notes that “I was able to write the last words only with great effort” (27).

In the 1965 paper announcing the experiential typewriter Leary a device capable of recording experience during a roller coaster ride:

“Lets imagine twenty buttons which the subject will push to record his reactions. One button is for “thrill” and another is for “lights” and another is for “sick” and another is for “dizzy.” Then we train the subject for hours in the code system until he gets to that point of automatic proficiency of the touch typist who can rattle off copy without think of what she is doing…Then we strap the subject’s hands to the dials of the roller-coaster ride. He can now give us perhaps twenty to a hundred codes a second which we pick up on a polygraph (i.e., a multipen recorder attached to the sending keys) (Psychedelic Review 71).”


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Esterline Angus Chart Recorder

The experiential typewriter’s design is credited to Dr. Ogden Lindsley of the Havard Medical School and William Getzinger, electronic engineer with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1965. The instrument is a direct remediation and synthesis of preexistent machinery. An internally modified Esterline Angus Operational Recorder is rigged with up to twenty pens (one for each key) and attached to a power console. This console also has two ten-key pads connected to it by long wires; when a key is depressed, a single mark is made upon the polygraph paper.

Why the non-verbal communication is performed with the fingers may be related to our critical concept the "obvious." Leary cites the automatized touch typist as a model; the previous knowledge that fingers can be taught to record information even when not tapped into the active consciousness may have led him to use this method. While contemporary scientists have studied brain activity through MRI scans or eye movements during REM sleep, the finger dependent keyboard design used by Leary may have been chosen for its availability to the public, or for its dichotomy between manual and automatic input. Unlike a lie detector test or seismograpgh machine (which also record onto polygraph paper) the experiential typewriter attempts to record conscious or purposeful strokes as well as automatic. While there are seemingly arbitrary parts of the design, such as lamps within each key, they may only appear arbitrary because I cannot situate them within the structure of a test. Furthermore, many of these extraneous pieces are actually intended for the future expansion of the machine.


“The usefulness of the Experiential Typewriter depends upon the meaningfulness of the experiential language to be coded…at this primitive stage of our understanding of the levels of consciousness it is premature to design…a linguistic system…ad hoc languages should be set up for each area of consciousness to be explored, for each session” (75).

Levels of Consciousness to Be Expressed

It is clear that codes intended for use with the experiential keyboard were always temporary and that new, specific codes may be used for individual experiments. Sources suggest number of coding possiblities that may have been useful for recording the inexpressible during “accelerated-brain experience.” Some states include stuporous, emotional, symbolic, somatic, senosory, cellular, molecular and out-of-body. “Each level needed a vocabulary,” which may have been taught to a subject during initial sessions; necessary to form a (sober) control set of data (156). Sensory, cellular and moleculer vocabularies were generated from overlaid "biology slides and and film strips...enlargements of cellular activity" and tape library with a wide variety of emotionally charged sounds in multiple languages (157).

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Keyboard Diagram

Chart Paper

Leary notes that the anticipation of a subject's loss of contact with the instrument and subsequent holding down of a key has lead to a notational system with discrete markings; "each time the key is depressed a mark is made on the polygraph, but if the key is held down no further mark is made" (72). The paper could be read by the researchers as the test was in progress, and the narrative could possibly be further explained by the subject after the test's completion.

Automatized Actions

Although this artifact's physical machinery records or processes information, one of the most crucial steps in usage is the invention of a language or code and the subsequent embedding of that code into a subject's unconscious, automatic reactions. Thus, the experiences under scrutiny must be considered to be dictated by the device itself, first through its tactile intrusion into the space of the experience, secondly through the small movements of the fingers trained to speak its code, and finally cognitively, because the subject has been trained to think in the generated code. Again, the E.T. is not simply a machine, but a formula or form for generating sign systems and the specific language invented for each use. Both the body and the machine are coded, equating the two, making explicit the notion that we communicate through arbitrary sign-systems and that the information produced during daily data-processing is a hybrid-construction of the self and the technology. Varying degrees of active, controlled cognition were described in Hofmann's first test: "In spite of my delirous, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear thinking-and chose milk as nonspecific antidote for poisoning" (27).

The "click" may be normal language itself in this context: the need to extrapolate this code into a vernacular language is not necessary for the machine, code, or system generated from these tests but is highly necessary for the findings of tests to make any sense on the semiotic level outside of the sphere of the subject and researchers.


It is interesting to note that many doctors, pharmacologists, and scientists interested in psychede lic chemicals first performed tests on themselves like many of their historical counterparts cited by Zielinski in "Deep Time of the Media."

Practical access to this device was obviously limited to those with access to Leary and the necessary chemicals that it hopes to test, but in theory, the the machine itself is arguably democratized. The fact that any individual who wishes to use it can make up a new code ("There is a small opening at one narrow end of each keyto allow insertion of a symbol or colored strip") means that the instrument functions much more like a piece of paper than a typewriter with exclusive characters (in one language, for example). That it attempts to create codes out of non-verbal emotions and experiences may enable it to move across cultural boundaries. Beyond this, the device could essentially be used by one any person, who could later go back and discover their experiences in written form.


Although Psychedelics Encyclopedia (1992) suggests that a prototype for such a machine was attempted but never reached a functioning state,” the original 1966 article features data gathered from tests run: “The first session was run as a control period, without drugs. The set was to meditate in silence. The second recording was made three hours after the ingestion of 250 gamma of LSD. Both sessions were run in a very small room; the subject lay on a mattress on the floot, hands resting easily on the two keyboards of the E.T. The console and recorder were ;in an adjacent room. The room was lit by one candle; actually the subject kept his eyes closed throughout both sessions” (83). Sources suggest that the setting of a psychedelic experience is an important factor in determining the kind of trip to be had; the setting described in this experiment is reminiscent of isolation chambers built by Leary to remove one from any definable place and allow 'time travel.'


In an article from 2006, Marko comments that "While insightful as to the timing of the various phases of the experience(e.g. onset, encounter, comedown), the results of these experiments only provide a real-time subjective assessment of the experience. This experimental methodology only provides a more objective understanding to the course of events during DMT inebriation." In other words, while a linear series of discrete emotive states is recorded, data can only be considered in qualitative terms.

Ben Highmore, speaking about the study of of daily existence in "The Everyday Life Reader," argues for methodologies that cross the line between literature or art and social science. Recent works of contemporary poetry such as "Fidget" and "Soliloquy" by Kenneth Goldsmith attempt to record every movement of his body in a day and every word he has spoken in a week, respectively. Although these tests occur when sober, a similar creeping in of the recording technology (a microphone that turned on when ever he spoke) onto the subject's experience is clear; arguments and conversations about the technology appear and guide some parts of "Soliloquy," while the non-address of the recording actions run through "Fidget" like a spirit. Goldsmith seems to come to similar conclusions about the usefulness of words in extreme situations; during the last chapter of "Fidget," he can no longer handle the self-scrutiny, gets drunk, makes untranslated noises into the tape and records the final chapter as the first backward.


  • Highmore, Ben. "Questioning Everyday Life." The Everyday Life Reader. Routledge: New York,
  • Hofmann, Albert. "LSD-My Problem Child." Psychedelic Reflections. Edited by Lester Grinspoo, M.D. and James B. Bakalar, J.D. Human Sciences Press, New York: 1983.
  • Leary, Timothy. "The Experiential Typewriter." Psychedelic Review 7. 1965.
  • Leary, Timoty. "Flashbacks."Tarcher/Putnam Books: New York, 1983.
  • Rodriguez, Marko A. "A Methodology for Studying Various Interpretations of the

N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality." 2006

  • Stafford, Peter. "Psychedelics Encyclopedia." Ronin: 1999.