About two years ago, I was what I now call “drug naïve”. I considered illegal drugs a category of highly dangerous and addictive substances that I would never touch. I don’t even smoke or drink, so why would I be interested in these tools of assured self-destruction?
It wasn’t until the rise of microdosing as a productivity enhancer that I became curious about the different kinds and effects of illegal substances (with a pretty spiritual perspective now, this couldn’t be more ironic by the way). I educated myself about psychedelics specifically and learned about their differences from other drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
I have since explored several psychedelic experiences and come to appreciate them as often beautiful but sometimes transformational journeys that altered the course of my life.
What are psychedelics?
Perhaps most distinctively, psychedelics are substances whose primary effect is an altered, heightened state of consciousness that is fundamentally different from our ordinary experience. During the so-called psychedelic experience, auditory and visual perception as well as thought are significantly changed. This also distinguishes psychedelics from other psychoactive drugs such as stimulants and opioids that only selectively induce feelings of relaxation or energy.
This state of consciousness however is not unique to psychedelics. Comparable peak experiences have been accessed through meditation, dreaming, and near-death experiences.
Psychedelics are believed to be physiologically safe and non-addictive. Used in the proper set & setting, they may even be beneficial to treating mental conditions including PTSD, depression, and substance addiction.
Interestingly, the term “psychedelic” was coined in 1956 by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond and derived from the Greek psyche (soul, mind) and delein (manifest, reveal), which hints at their potential use in therapy and personal development. Stanislav Grof, a leading psychologist and researcher in the fields of transpersonal psychology and non-ordinary states of consciousness, wrote:
“…I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy. […] These substances function as unspecific amplifiers that increase the cathexis (energetic charge) associated with the deep unconscious contents of the psyche and make them available for conscious processing. This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviours to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.”
From the foreword to the MAPS edition of LSD: My Problem Child (October 2005) by Dr. Albert Hofmann
Psychedelics include a variety of substances including LSD, psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”), DMT (a component of ayahuasca), 5-MEO-DMT, and mescaline (as found in San Pedro and peyote). Many of these substances are of natural origin from plants, fungi, or toads. Others have been created in the lab (such as LSD) or synthesized after their discovery in nature.
Most psychedelics are illegal in most countries. Exceptions include some religious and research contexts but are usually heavily restricted. The spiritual and recreational use however is quite common and seemingly tolerated.
How psychedelics work in the brain
From a biochemical perspective, “classic” psychedelics fall into the group of serotonergic psychedelics. These are non-selective serotonin receptor agonists that activate serotonin receptors in the brain in a similar way to serotonin, a natural human neurotransmitter. This class includes LSD, psilocybin, DMT, mescaline, and 2C-B.
Even though their chemical structure differs, these hallucinogens tend to create similar effects including the altered perception of sound, time, space, visuals, colors, shapes and even synesthesia. Although research is limited at this point, LSD for instance has been shown to change the signaling of the brain and might cause a hyperconnected state between otherwise isolated brain regions.
Beyond the classical psychedelics are the classes of serotonin releasers (empathogen-entactogens) and dissociatives.
Empathogen-entactogens include MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, and are “characterized by feelings of openness, euphoria, empathy, love, heightened self-awareness” (Wikipedia). Other psychedelic effects are relatively mild compared to serotonergic psychedelics.
Dissociatives on the other hand are not generally psychedelic, but some and when used in relatively high doses, are known to produce powerful psychedelic effects. These are often accompanied by experiences of depersonalization and disconnection from one’s body and/or experience of self (ego). The clinical anesthetic ketamine for example can induce intense psychedelic experiences and has even been used in psychotherapy for conditions such as severe, treatment resistant depression. While the use of serotonin antagonists in people with a family history of severe mental illness is generally advised against due to the risk triggering or worsening these conditions, dissociatives such as ketamine might be a safer option with similar benefits for treatment.
How psychedelics affect the body
Bearing in mind the wide array of substances we’ve been discussing, the physical effects of serotonergic psychedelics are usually mild and can include dilated pupils, increased heart rate, nausea, changes in body temperature, dry mouth, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness. The plant medicines iboga and ayahuasca are known to produce stronger effects such as vomiting or severe nausea, although these are likely caused by other constituents of the brews and also seen as an essential part of the experience.
Classic psychedelics such as LSD are considered to be physiologically safe and not cause damage to the brain or body. Some have been shown to increase neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to reorganize and repair itself) in animals.
So far, there have been no reported fatalities due to overdoses of LSD, and research suggests that there is no lethal dose. However, fatalities have occurred due to behavioral and environmental factors while on LSD and other psychedelic substances.
Are psychedelics addictive?
Psychedelics are also generally considered to be non-addictive. Even though they affect the brain during the experience itself, they do not alter the chemistry of the brain in the way that other addictive substances do. Powerful experiences even seem to have the opposite effect and not compel users to seek out more experiences within short time spans.
“[P]sychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope; he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
From ‘The Joyous Cosmology, Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness’ by Alan Watts, 1962.
However, frequent use can lead to decreased sensitivity and psychological addiction when users become dependent on the type of peak experience that psychedelics provide, without the proper intentional work and integration.
A brief history of psychedelics
The history of psychedelics exploration by humans could easily fill volumes. From ancient South American tribes to the Aboriginal people of Australia, psychedelics have been known to man for millennia and used in spiritual, religious, and recreational contexts. Naturally occurring psychedelics – most prominently psilocybin mushrooms – grow on every civilized continent.
Increasingly gaining popular attention for ayahuasca today, many indigenous tribes of the Amazon (in what today is Peru and Brazil, where the use is still legal) have been using psychedelics perhaps for as long as 5000, but certainly 1000 years. Traditionally, ayahuasca has been used in sacred ceremonies served by or even exclusively consumed by experienced shamans. Tribes have been reported to have derived essential knowledge about the Amazon, their habitat, through the use of ayahuasca, allowing them to live sustainably and in deep connection with nature to a level that we can only begin to understand (start here to get an idea).
On the opposite side of the Pacific, the Aboriginal people of Australia have inhabited their continent for more than 50,000 years. At the core of their cultural understanding and worldview is the “dreamtime”. It is increasingly believed that the origin of the dreamtime is connected to the use of psychedelics such as the DMT of the Australian acacia tree. This has only come into discussion in recent years though and is still subject to validation.
In the modern Western world, psychedelics have resurfaced to attention ever since Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the effects of LSD in 1938. Initially psychedelics were mostly seen as a so-called psychotomimetic – a way for therapists to experience the effects of psychosis themselves in order to understand and ultimately treat their patients better.
In the 1950s, psychedelic therapy with LSD and mescaline began to be developed by Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond. Research into the medical use of psychedelics continued into the 60s and 70s and shifted towards treating alcohol addiction, depression, emotional and physical trauma. By 1965, over a thousand research papers on the therapeutic use of LSD had been published, some with astounding results.
Infamously in 1960, Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary started distributing psilocybin to his students, encouraging them to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and later publicly encouraged the use of LSD for anyone. Inevitably, LSD became popular throughout the contemporary counter culture in the US, UK and Europe protesting against the political establishment and the Vietnam war, among other things. While there were reports of horrible “bad trips”, murders, and psychosis originating in psychedelic use, governments also had a strong motive to shut down the counter culture and peace sentiments that were catalyzed by their widespread use.
In 1966, LSD was first criminalized in California, and, along with other psychedelics, ultimately banned by alterations to the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1971. Research came to an abrupt halt and the distribution of psychedelic substances stopped almost completely. Psychedelic therapy and recreational use moved underground and mostly out of the center of public attention.
Thanks to Rick Doblin (founder of MAPS) and others however, research into psychedelic therapy has gained fresh momentum in recent years. Notably, MAPS has been conducting several trials with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD, with results promising enough to have gained breakthrough therapy status. MDMA is now on track for FDA approval for prescription use by 2021.
The underground use of psychedelics has also surged in recent years. Perhaps spreading out from the San Francisco Bay Area, underground ayahuasca ceremonies, microdosing for productivity and creativity among startup executives, as well as the recreational use of MDMA, mushrooms, LSD, and ketamine have become increasingly popular and talked about. Psychedelics have arrived in mainstream culture, including Tim Ferriss’s podcast and Michael Pollan’s book “How To Change Your Mind”*.
In May 2019, Denver saw the decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms, and other regions across the US are seeing similar initiatives. Only a few weeks later, Oakland, California, decriminalized all entheogenic plants and mushrooms (including ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, peyote, San Pedro, Iboga).
Esketamine (the S(+) enantiomer of ketamine), has recently been approved for treating depression, and Canada just allowed an increased number of religious group the import and ceremonial use of ayahuasca. Cannabis, which is considered to be psychedelic in high doses and certainly psychoactive, has been widely legalized in some states of the US and all of Canada, with other countries expected to follow suit shortly. The topic of decriminalization or even legalization of psychedelic substances has broken its taboo status and can be expected to spread internationally in the next few years.
Psychedelics as medicine
In recent years, various psychedelics have been studied for their therapeutic potential. Most prominently, MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) has led the way in clinical trials for the treatment of PTSD with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Other studies have looked at treating severe depression with the help of psilocybin and even LSD. One study into the correlation of regular religious ayahuasca use and addiction to alcohol and tobacco in Brazil found that the number of addiction disorders for regular ayahuasca users was significantly lower than that of the Brazilian norm.
FDA expanded access for MDMA and psilocybin also makes it possible for terminal cancer patients to combat anxiety and fear of death, allowing them to die “in dignity”.
Overall, psychedelic therapy may be leading the way into an entirely new category of medical treatment: experiential medicine. While the substances themselves do not alleviate any conditions, the experience they induce does. Combined with the context (the setting) and therapeutic process, they appear to be remarkably effective treatments for a variety of mental health conditions. It is crucial however to keep in mind that this includes careful screening of suitable patients and does not apply to everyone suffering from the same conditions.
Could we use psychedelics intentionally and to our benefit?
Aside from the medical model, psychedelics may offer unique benefits in the context of personal and ceremonial “underground” use. From the perspective of personal development and healing, responsible psychedelic use can lead to:
- Introspective insights, including for personal and analytical problems
- Connection – to ourselves, our higher self, nature, community, loved ones
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved emotional intelligence & social skills
- Improved productivity & focus
- Resolving emotional and physical trauma and pain
- Helping cure mental & physical illness
- Processing/resolving of ancestral/epigenetic trauma
Before even considering taking psychedelics outside of therapeutic/medical environments, the questions of safety and legality need to be top priorities. Unfortunately, psychedelics are widely illegal. They are also not safe or advisable for everyone to use.
Crucial to achieving these benefits is the awareness of the true “work” with psychedelics. Intentional, conscious use begins with proper set and setting, choosing an intention, and honoring the integration process. Integration specifically should be considered the most important part of psychedelic experiences and refers to the process of processing insights into everyday life.
Intentional psychedelic use does not mean chasing after one peak experience after another in the hope for ever more answers, but instead “hanging up the phone once the message has been heard” – and starting to do the work outside of the experience.
The psychedelic renaissance is in full force – but it’s not clear yet where it’s headed and whether it will get shut down just as abruptly as before. It may be just another apex of the Gartner hype cycle, similar to what the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain just experienced in 2017.
Personally and independently of the political process, I believe that for some people, psychedelics can be a unique tool for personal growth and – with the proper preparation, precautions, intention, set and setting, and integration practice, can help guide the way to powerful transformation and lasting happiness.