As Seen on TV: Lost's DHARMA Initiative

By Mike Schuster  OCT 14, 2009 9:50 AM

Unraveling conspiracies on and off screen.


Except for maybe Guiding Light, ABC's (DIS) Lost has the largest, most complex storyline of any modern serialized drama. In just five seasons, creators Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof constructed a labyrinthine universe -- possibly multiverse, if teasers for next season are for real -- comprised of ancient mythology, undead spirits, smoke monsters, and a malevolent series of numbers.

Despite hundreds of fan sites, like and, an online compendium called Lostpedia is required to document every plot point, character and connection contained within the show.

A central hub to the Lost storyline -- and there are several -- is the clandestine DHARMA Initiative. Cryptically short for Department of Heuristics and Research on Material Applications, DHARMA and its intentions aren't fully revealed on the show -- even when an entire season is devoted to its development on the island. What viewers are privy to is the organization's research and various experiments in the fields of meteorology, psychology, parapsychology, zoology, and electromagnetism -- if questionable orientation films are to be believed. While its altruism is dubious at best, its size and span of power is shrouded in mystery.

With such inventive and metaphysical elements, it's hard to imagine that anything in the show is based on actual events. But surprisingly, portions of the DHARMA Initiative have been influenced by -- or even lifted from -- several organizations, according to

And all have similarly strange intentions.

DHARMA's remote commune of families and engineers indebted to a more ecological and enlightened life -- with aspirations toward Utopia -- has ties to the Findhorn Ecovillage and Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth" movement. The CIA's covert MKULTRA project studied the effects of hallucinogenics in mind control scenarios -- similar to John Locke's meditation methods and presumed DHARMA experiments. And numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the US Military's High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) have shown up in Lost as DHARMA actions -- including bringing down a passenger plane.

But perhaps the greatest influence on the DHARMA Initiative is the unusual research done by SRI International. Founded as the Stanford Research Institute, SRI is a non-profit organization which covers various production in communication, environmental energy, robotics and -- shockingly enough -- homeland security.

Aside from SRI's widespread innovations -- from liquid crystal displays to malaria treatments -- the 1960s and '70s saw some peculiar advancement in parapsychology and LSD research. The Institute began collaborating with L. Ron Hubbard and psychic Uri Gellar and, in March 1976, published studies in clairvoyance and psychokinesis in the Proceedings of the IEEE. SRI researchers also coined the term "remote viewing" to describe the culling of information on an unseen object using paranormal means or ESP -- something which also pops up in an early scene in Ghostbusters.

While paranormal and psychological experimentation is evident in Lost's orientation videos and island hatches, most notable is the study of alternate futures, which has been referenced in SRI's report called "The Changing Images of Man." According to the report, its purpose reads:

"First, we attempted to identify and assess the plausibility of a truly vast number of future possibilities for society. We next followed a method of analysis that determined which sequences of possible futures (that is, which "alternate future histories") appeared to be the most plausible in light of human history and to most usefully serve the needs of policy research and development. Lastly, we derived a variety of policy implications, some of which dealt with how best to continue this type of inquiry."

In an interview earlier this year, Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof said the mysterious numbers that appear throughout the show are tied into theme of "alternate future history." The numbers related to the probability of the world being destroyed during the Cuban Missile Crisis and DHARMA's ability to change the variables of the equation to prevent mankind's destruction.

Whether or not that is addressed in the show's final season is dependent on the producers' delicate balance between mystery and revelation.

But knowing that similar experiments have already been conducted, that point might be moot.

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