The main question the documentary asks is whether the experiences of lsd users can make claim to being spiritual in nature, or whether this is ‘just’ psychedelic delusion. It then documents the history of lsd, from the CIA experiments in the 1950s, to the psychedelic experiments by Timothy Leary at Harvard University and its experimentalist use by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the early 1960s, to its more widespread use as a recreational drug in the age of the hippie counterculture.
Very interesting is the footage of Christopher Mayhew, a British upper class aristocrat politician, who in the early 1960s took mescaline as an experiment to be documented by the BBC:
The footage of his experience is extraordinary, as this eloquent upper-class Mr. Cholmondley-Warner-style aristocrat describes what he is experiencing under the influence of the drug, his eyes wide as saucers. Indeed, the footage proved too controversial for the BBC at the time, and was not shown until this Everyman documentary broadcast it in the 1980′s. Interestingly, Mayhew, who in 1986 was a member of the House of Lords, watches the footage, 30 years later, and stands by his description of the experience. “I had an experience in time” he says, and his conviction is apparent.
But, the documentary also explores bad trips. Albert Hoffmann has the last words, ending on the note that while he didn’t believe his lsd experiences to be spiritual, he did believe that they represented ‘another dimension to reality’.
Over at Andrew Sullivan, the conservative and Catholic blogger has recently compiled a nice little book composed of readers’ submissions about their marihuana use. The goal is to, in a country (the US) in which smoking pot is still frowned upon by large segments of society, show that marihuana use is actually way more mainstream than people think. The stories in the book, appropriately called The Cannabis Closet, are all about (middle class) people smoking weed to gain insight, to relax, to enjoy music or a social setting, or of course to cure pain. Frequenty in family settings, or with traditional events like Christmas. And why not?
The book is a compilation of first-person pot use testimonials, from top executives to responsible parents, from entrepreneurs to A-students, from unwinding suburbanites to the very sick. In more than 120 personal stories, it demolishes every hoary “stoner” stereotype of the regular pot-user. It doesn’t glide over the downsides of pot-use, but it does explain more graphically and powerfully how marijuana-use has become as American as, er, brownies and milk. It shows how responsible pot-use is already compatible with middle-class life and its obligations. Browse and buy it here.
Sullivan advocates – and I wholeheartedly agree with him – that marihuana be no longer seen as either ‘stoner’ or cool or semi-underground, or as despicable, dangerous and wrong. It is just a natural product that has downsides and upsides, and deserves no special status alongside other drugs like alcohol and cafeine (although like them it requires regulation). In the US, and in the Netherlands too, a large section of the public, under the influence of the mainstream media, is still too prejudiced to see this.
But anyway, now that this praiseworthy book has been compiled, Sullivan’s readers are also sending in stories of experiences with other drugs. Mushrooms, for example. And this is another department than weed. Way stronger, but with the potential to gain much more insight from it. Read this, for example:
Shortly after my first marijuana experience, I tried LSD and mushrooms. I skipped class a couple of times to day-trip (4/20 anyone?), but in contrast to pot, the most endearing quality of these hallucinogens is what I once heard called “the progress-checker.” While I now love the occasional joint for relaxation, it took me far too long to realize that I shouldn’t make decisions while high. The opposite is true of hallucinogens. Trips were the most lucid and honest evaluations of my life during those two years. In fact, I can attribute at least in part my eventual modest success in college to the times I realized with horror while tripping how badly I was screwing up my life. Pot is for checking out; hallucinogens are for checking in. Way in. I was forced to think about school, about family, about my life. It was terrifying, but in the way I imagine therapy can be.
Your contributor mentioned the journey. During a (good) trip, the vastness and beauty of the individual journey is simply staggering. Acid is the only time I have actually wept with joy; it is also the only time I was convinced I was about to die and accepted my fate. They helped me through the existential muck – I made peace with impermanence and insignificance. Hallucinogens helped make me who I am: They opened my eyes to the intricate depths and fantastic surrealism of nature (psilocybin while hiking the Zion Narrows – I’m an atheist but that’s the closest I’ve been to god); they’ve helped forge deep, permanent friendships through shared, unique and utterly insane experiences.
Not to mention the staggeringly beautiful visuals. I will never forget a young Sean Connery speaking plainly to me from his James Bond poster on the wall, or a brick wall flapping in the breeze.
Sometimes I think the world would be a better place if everybody would trip hard just once.
I’ve done psychedelics a handful of times. Each time, I have come to know myself better. I’ve come to understand a lot about where I view myself in terms of humanity, the world, and the universe. I finally was able to come around to understanding, for example, that the debate I’d been having with myself for a long time – whether or not I believe in God – was less important than what I think of the life that exists either because or in spite of God. I know that sounds like old stoner claptrap, but these are insights I either couldn’t comprehend formerly or had spent most of my life fighting.
Honestly, the reader’s worry about “wisdom” achieved through drug use is well-founded; there is no substitute for gaining knowledge through experiences. Neither is there a shortcut around mediation or healthy living. Psychedelics, I believe, should never be used as such. To me, a trip is more a chance to reorient oneself – to gain a specific kind of perspective while having a ridiculously wild ride. But let’s be honest about it, too: taking mushrooms or acid a few times a year is very, very different than holing oneself up in a bedroom for a week and devouring a double hit ever twelve hours.
I think we should have more of this. Hopefully, The Mushroom Closet is next.
If you happen to be in London, this may be interesting. The Wellcome Trust has an exhibition running until February called High Society, exploring “the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture”, which challenges “the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life”.
From ancient Egyptian poppy tinctures to Victorian cocaine eye drops, Native American peyote rites to the salons of the French Romantics, mind-altering drugs have a rich history. ‘High Society’ will explore the paths by which these drugs were first discovered – from apothecaries’ workshops to state-of-the-art laboratories – and how they came to be simultaneously fetishised and demonised in today’s culture.
Mind-altering drugs have been used in many ways throughout history – as medicines, sacraments and status symbols, to investigate the brain, inspire works of art or encounter the divine, or simply as an escape from the experience.
Exhibits will include: Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ manuscript, said to have been written after an opium dream; a hand-written manuscript by Captain Thomas Bowrey describing his crew’s experiments with Bhang – a cannabis drink – in 17th-century Bengal; a bottle of cocaine eye drops; and a hallucinogenic snuff set collected in the Amazon by the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce. The exhibition will also feature contemporary art pieces exploring drug use and culture, including Tracy Moffat’s Laudanum portrait series and a recreation of the Joshua Light Show by Joshua White and Seth Kirby.
Every society on earth is a high society. As the sun rises in the east, caffeine is infused and sipped across China in countless forms of dried, smoked and fermented tea. From the archipelagos of Indonesia and New Guinea through Thailand, Burma and India, a hundred million chewers of betel prepare their quids of areca nut, pepper leaf and caustic lime ash, press it between their teeth and expectorate the day’s first mouthful of crimson saliva. Across the cities of Thailand, Korea and China, potent and illicit preparations such as ya’aba, home-cooked amphetamine pills swallowed or smoked, propel a young generation through the double working shifts of economic boomtime, or burn up the empty hours of unemployment, before igniting the clubs and bars of the urban nightscape.
As the sun tracks across towards the afternoon, the rooftop terraces of Yemen’s medieval mud-brick cities fill with men gathering to converse and chew khat through the scorching heat of the day. Across the concrete jungles of the Middle East, millions without the means for a midday meal make do with a heap of sugar stirred into a small cup of strong black tea. As the working day in Europe draws to a close, the traffic through the bars of the city squares begins to pick up, and high-denomination euro notes are surreptitiously exchanged for wraps of cocaine and ecstasy.
A very informative article in The Globe and Mail, that ties into a recurring theme on this blog: unfair mainstream media reporting on, and general hypocrisy regarding drug use. But also how this slowly might be subject to change. A while ago, we blogged about a NYT article on the increasing study of hallucinogens like lsd for medical use. Similar reporting by CNN aired a few weeks later. Also see this somewhat older article in TIME magazine on the benefits and downsides of xtc, and finally this BBC Horizon documentary (and a host of scientific studies) about how alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than xtc and lsd.
This Globe and Mail article relates how hallucinogens - mushrooms, lsd and ayahuasca - as well as mdma (the active ingredient of xtc) are actively being used again in academic research programs on, for instance, post-traumatic stress relief, cancer-related anxiety, quitting smoking, and depression. This with the approval of drug regulators. But also, how they’re “restoring a sense of the sacred” in a materialistic Western society.
For four decades, the possession of LSD, psilocybin and other hallucinogens has been illegal in most of the Western world, the topic itself socially and scientifically taboo. More than half the U.S. prison population of 2.3 million is incarcerated because of drug manufacture, distribution and related crimes. Churches routinely inveigh against this alternate route to transcendence.
Taking users outside conventional time and space, psychedelics – almost by definition – challenge the hallowed ground of Western materialism. Lying beyond rationalism, they’ve been banned and pathologized.
To suggest that these substances might actually be good for us is heresy of the first order. Yet that’s exactly what these psychologists, pharmacologists and social workers maintain – that they are good for the treatment of rampant drug addictions, for post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorders and for end-of-life, cancer-related and other depressions.
Not to mention, dare I say, to restore our rapidly fading sense of the sacred.
Something is happening here, the stirrings of a psychedelic renaissance. On a scale that could scarcely have been imagined a decade ago, the pharmacopeia of hallucinogens is slowly reclaiming a legitimate place in the West’s cultural discourse. And it’s doing so in the name of our highest secular god – science.
Psilocybin, for example, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, is being used at New York University for cancer-related anxiety and at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins to help people quit smoking. A Harvard team is developing trial protocols for treating cluster-headache patients with LSD or psilocybin.
The non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is giving MDMA (ecstasy) to victims of PTSD in the U.S., Switzerland and Israel. Similar studies will begin next year in Jordan and in Vancouver.
In effect, drug regulators are now reviewing psychotropic substances as they would any drug seeking approval. They’re testing safety, feasibility and efficacy through rigorous, double-blind, crossover clinical trials.
This needs to be said: There are no Timothy Learys here. No one is advocating a return to the reckless hedonism that often marked LSD voyages of the 1960s, and that helped to invite the statutory crackdown.
Today’s most ardent proselytizers of psychedelics as therapy acknowledge its risks.
Nevertheless, a renewed interest in the creative, healing, spirit-awakening potential of the psychedelic medicine cabinet doesn’t appear ex nihilo.
Maybe it’s a harbinger of the notion that, at some level, we’re trying to repair the mind-body disconnect – the materialist, Cartesian worldview – that has governed Western life for centuries.
Maybe, in short, we are beginning to wake up. High time, indeed.
Read more (especially for details regarding the studies currently being undertaken).
If you ever only see one documentary about drugs, let it be this one. The acclaimed BBC series Horizon episode “Is alcohol worse than ecstasy?” examines the dangers of the 20 drugs most commonly used in the United Kingdom.
It does this based upon a qualification by a group of scientists, composed of Britain’s leading drug experts and members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). This group in 2007 published an article in The Lancet (to be found here), in which a rational scale for assessing the danger of drugs was developed. This scale took the form of a list, in which the 20 drugs were ranked according to potential harm.
In Great Britain, regulatory policy regarding drugs consists of a classification along three categories: Class A (most dangerous), Class B and Class C (least dangerous). Alcohol and tobacco are not included in the categorization. This approach, on the face of it, seems better than the Dutch system of ranking substances either as “hard drugs” or as “soft drugs”, as it allows for more nuance. There are, however, a number of problems with the British system. The system was invented in 1971, whereas a substance like ecstasy was added to it in 1977 – way before it was used the way it is today. This leads to a rather weird categorization: while lsd, mushrooms and ecstasy are ranked alongside heroin and crack in Class A, dangerous stuff like ketamin is ranked alongside sleeping pills in Class C.
The research group therefore wanted to develop a new method for assessing the danger of drugs. They did this by employing three criteria. The first of these is personal harm; what a drug does to you if you take it in. The second one is addictiveness; how fast you get hooked to it. The third one is societal harm; how much damage it can do to those around you and society at large.
Based on these criteria, and after consultation with other experts, the researchers assembled their list of twenty drugs, in order of harmfulness. And the results are remarkable. While, unsurprisingly, heroin and cocaine top the list as the most dangerous drugs, other results are counterintuitive (that is, if you base everything you know on media reports): alcohol and tobacco, for instance, turn out to be far more harmful than lsd and ecstasy, while marihuana is not the innocent drug it is often proclaimed to be.
Here’s the list (with some interesting graphs alongside it, click to enlarge):
4. Street methadone
16. Anabolic steroids
19. Alkyl nitrates
So the place of ecstasy on this list, as the documentary has it, “massively conflicts with its reputation”.
Another report, this time by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs itself (from 2009, to be found here), based on a 12-month study of 4,000 research articles, addressed this particular issue. Ecstasy is a substance that has been the victim of a relentless media campaign. The report even addresses this: during the 1990s in Scotland, for example, every instance of a fatality involving ecstasy was widely reported on, while only a fraction of (far more frequent) fatalities with other drugs were reported on. Similar observations regarding media publicity can be made regarding Australia (see this report) and the Netherlands (see this report by the political party D66).
According to the researchers, however, ecstasy’s bad reputation is unwarranted. First of all, ecstasy is not physically addictive (it can, of course, like any drug, be psychologically addictive). Second, ecstasy is not harmful to society (ecstasy turns users into empathic softies, whereas alcohol and cocaine can make users prone to violence; the number of hospitalizations of ecstasy users is negligible, and nearly always due to combining it with other drugs; and just compare it to the million-wide addiction to alcohol and tobacco). The true danger is personal harm. Metastudies (pdf) reveal, however, that personal dangers predominantly arise in cases of chronic and excessive use.
All researchers in the BBC documentary make clear that media reporting about ecstasy has been biased and overblown. Quote:
It’s not a drug that’s hazard free, by any means. But having said that, many thousands of people in the UK have tried it, and a good proportion of those people derived pleasure and a good experience from it. So I’m not going to sit here and say that it’s a very dangerous drug.
The position of ecstasy near the bottom of the list was defended by Prof Nutt, who said that apart from some tragic isolated cases ecstasy is relatively safe. Despite about a third of young people having tried the drug and around half a million users every weekend, it causes fewer than 10 deaths a year. One person a day is killed by acute alcohol poisoning and thousands more from chronic use.
Thus, the researchers and experts of the ACMD in their 2009 report made the policy recommendation to the British government that the ABC-classification scheme needed revision: ecstasy needed to be downgraded to Class C, while alcohol, tobacco and marihuana needed to be included and upgraded to Class B and A. In addition, Prof. David Nutt, chair of the ACMD, wrote a paper for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies of King’s College, London (to be found here), arguing along the same lines.
The researchers’ conclusions, however, did not match the political considerations of their employers. Hours before publication of the ACMD report, the Home Office sent a letter rejecting beforehand two of three policy recommendations. When David Nutt published his paper, moreover, he was immediately sacked by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary.
This, however, led to a great deal of protest, as the ACMD in response threatened with mass resignation. The Guardian(here’s more):
The government was at the centre of a furious backlash from leading scientists last night following its sacking of Britain’s top drugs adviser.
The decision by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to call on Professor David Nutt to resign as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) has thrown the future of the respected independent body into severe doubt. There were claims last night that many of those who sit on the 31-strong council – which advises ministers on what evidence there is of harm caused by drugs – may resign en masse, raising serious doubts about how ministers will justify policy decisions.
Several were this weekend seeking urgent reassurances from the government that it will not try to control their agenda and will allow them to speak out before they decide whether to quit. One is said to have already resigned.
That’s a lot of intro, but here’s the BBC documentary. While informative in its entirety, the remarkable conclusions are, of course, that ecstasy is not nearly the dangerous drug it is portrayed to be; and that alcohol, were it invented today, would immediately be listed a Class A drug. I think that’s something to think about.
According to some, notably Aldous Huxley, the psychedelic experience (eating a shroom or taking lsd) is like experiencing the world as a baby. The alteration of the chemical balance in your brain results in the reduced functioning of those processes that induce rationality – the ability to filter experiences, separate important from non-important impulses, in short, everything you need to survive as a living being in the world – while opening you up for the “non-filtered” experience of the world. While this of course for the time being impairs your ability to function as an adult, it does enable one to experience and explore the world from angles never thought possible before.
This also has philosophical implications: if one’s experience of the world can differ so much, if one’s “normal” experience of the world is merely the one that we have been pushed and trained in, then what is reality? Or better: how can reality be known? What is “normal”?
Anyways, new research has come out that relates to these considerations. According to a paper by three researchers in Psychological Science, babies experience the world like a lantern. That is, instead of being able to focus their attention on something specific, they experience everything that happens around them, like a lantern that diffuses light in all directions around it. This thesis, by the way, was already put forward by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby.
And it’s true, I think: have you ever seen the look on a baby’s face? The way it gazes into the world with open mouth and big eyes, staring at everything? Wonder what that’s like.
We all know what attention is. William James said it best:
Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
James is describing the spotlight model of attention: If the world is a vast stage, then we only notice things that fall within the narrow circle of illumination. Everything outside the spotlight remains invisible. This is because, as James pointed out, the act of attention is intertwined with the act of withdrawal; to concentrate on one thing is to ignore everything else.
And this brings me to my question: How do babies pay attention? What is it like to look at the world like an infant? The question is particularly interesting because the ability to pay attention, focusing that spotlight on a thin slice of the stage, depends on the frontal cortex, that lobe of brain behind the forehead. Alas, the frontal cortex isn’t fully formed until late adolescence – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – which means that it’s just beginning to solidify in babies. The end result is that little kids struggle to focus.
This has led the UC-Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Philosophical Baby – to suggest that babies don’t have a spotlight of attention: They have a lantern. If attention is like a focused beam in adults, then it’s more like a glowing bulb in babies, casting a diffuse radiance across the world. This crucial difference in attention has been demonstrated indirectly in a variety of experiments. For instance, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane— looking at a picture, and asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the weirdness of their attention becomes clear. Not surprisingly, the kids agree that Jane is thinking about the picture she’s staring at. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.
And now there’s a brand new paper in Psychological Science by Faraz Farzin, Susan Rivera and David Whitney that provides some of the best evidence yet for the lantern hypothesis. The experiment itself involved tracking the eye movements of infants between 6 and 15 months of age. The researchers used a special stimuli known as a Mooney face. What makes these images useful is that they can’t be perceived using bottom-up sensory processes. Instead, the only way to see the shadowed faces is to stare straight at them – unless we pay attention the faces remain incomprehensible, just a mass of black and white splotches. In this experiment, however, the babies were able to perceive the faces even when they were located in the periphery of their visual field. (Trust me: You can’t do this.) Because their lantern was so diffuse, they were able to notice stimuli on a much vaster sensory stage. In subsequent experiments, the researchers found that this lantern of attention came with a tradeoff. While babies notice more, they see with less precision. In fact, the “effective spatial resolution” of infants’ visual perception was only half that of adults, although it steadily increased with age.
Note: Sometimes, of course, it’s helpful for adults to engage in lantern-like attention. See, for instance, this recent post on latent inhibition and creativity.
In honor of his 116th birthday were he still alive, Dangerous Minds posts a television interview with one of my all-time heroes: writer, essayist, humanist, pacifist, intellectual, spiritual seeker and psychedelic Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).
Huxley is the arch-open minded figure: a hugely talented person, author of Brave New World (1948), who later in life rejected the mores of the establishment to which he belonged, and began a sort of spiritual quest. And of course, Huxley openly took and advocated psychedelic drugs, such as lsd and mescaline (of which he wrote in The Doors of Perception (1954), which everybody should read), and as such stands at the basis of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. He did this not as a thrill-seeker, but as someone genuinely interested in the worthwhile possibilities of consciousness-altering substances for the human experience. This is a welcome counterexample to the present-day rigidity and bourgeois aversion to psychedelic substances.
In this interview, conducted by the famous news anchor Mike Wallace on The Mike Wallace Interview in 1958, Huxley speaks about:
[How] overpopulation relates to freedom; technological development in proportion to authoritarianism; future dictatorships; Brave New World in America; the power of advertising in politics; subliminals and brainwashing; education and group morality; societal decentralization; how productivity necessitates freedom; and of course drugs.
This is part 1. Find part 2 and part 3 here and here.
A few weeks ago, we reported about a great New York Times piece about the growing scientific study of psychedelics like lsd, xtc and psilocybin for medical use, such as treating depressions.
Participants in those studies described their use of psychedelics as a “profound spiritual experience”, ranking it among ”the most meaningful events” of their life.
Now CNN is covering these medical studies as well. And, lo and behold, not even in a biased, narrow-minded manner, like mainstream media usually do!
In this clip, reporters visit the conference on psychedelic science held recently in San Jose, and talk with Harvard and University of California experts. Also there’s a good discussion between two researchers at the end. Very worthwhile watching!
Again, I’m really amazed at the openness of CNN. Will there finally be some common sense regarding this subject?
Wow, I didn’t know this. According to a front page article in The New York Times, hallucinogens are apparently being researched again by medical scientists for their use in treating depressions and other psychological illnesses. This goes voor psilocybin (the active ingredient in mushrooms and lsd), as well as other psychedelics. Unlike in Ken Kesey’s 1960s, however, this time there are strict rules and regulations.
Note how the 65-year old clinical psychologist cited in the article (picture above) calls his psilocybin use one of “the most meaningful events of his life”.
And note how scientists working on this seem especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences, and religious-mystic or meditative experiences. According to one study, experimental participants described a “profound spiritual experience” with lasting positive effects for most of them.
Interviewees report having felt themselves part of one large consciousness, as well as reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.
As a retired clinical psychologist, Clark Martin was well acquainted with traditional treatments for depression, but his own case seemed untreatable as he struggled through chemotherapy and other grueling regimens for kidney cancer. Counseling seemed futile to him. So did the antidepressant pills he tried.
Nothing had any lasting effect until, at the age of 65, he had his first psychedelic experience. He left his home in Vancouver, Wash., to take part in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school involving psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient found in certain mushrooms.
Scientists are taking a new look at hallucinogens, which became taboo among regulators after enthusiasts like Timothy Leary promoted them in the 1960s with the slogan “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Now, using rigorous protocols and safeguards, scientists have won permission to study once again the drugs’ potential for treating mental problems and illuminating the nature of consciousness.
After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.
“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”
Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects.
Researchers from around the world are gathering this week in San Jose, Calif., forthe largestconference on psychedelic science held in the United States in four decades. They plan to discuss studies of psilocybin and other psychedelics for treating depression in cancer patients, obsessive-compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The results so far are encouraging but also preliminary, and researchers caution against reading too much into these small-scale studies. They do not want to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s, when some scientists-turned-evangelists exaggerated their understanding of the drugs’ risks and benefits.
Because reactions to hallucinogens can vary so much depending on the setting, experimenters and review boards have developed guidelines to set up a comfortable environment with expert monitors in the room to deal with adverse reactions. They have established standard protocols so that the drugs’ effects can be gauged more accurately, and they have also directly observed the drugs’ effects by scanning the brains of people under the influence of hallucinogens.
Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.
In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them. None had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and none were even sure what drug was being administered.
To make the experiment double-blind, neither the subjects nor the two experts monitoring them knew whether the subjects were receiving a placebo, psilocybin or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine or an amphetamine. Although veterans of the ’60s psychedelic culture may have a hard time believing it, Dr. Griffiths said that even the monitors sometimes could not tell from the reactions whether the person had taken psilocybin or Ritalin.
The monitors sometimes had to console people through periods of anxiety, Dr. Griffiths said, but these were generally short-lived, and none of the people reported any serious negative effects. In a survey conducted two months later, the people who received psilocybin reported significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior than did the members of the control group.
The findings were repeated in another follow-up survey, taken 14 months after the experiment. At that point most of the psilocybin subjects once again expressed more satisfaction with their lives and rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.
Since that study, which was published in 2008, Dr. Griffiths and his colleagues have gone on to give psilocybin to people dealing with cancer and depression, like Dr. Martin, the retired psychologist from Vancouver. Dr. Martin’s experience is fairly typical, Dr. Griffiths said: an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.
In interviews, Dr. Martin and other subjects described their egos and bodies vanishing as they felt part of some larger state of consciousness in which their personal worries and insecurities vanished. They found themselves reviewing past relationships with lovers and relatives with a new sense of empathy.
“It was a whole personality shift for me,” Dr. Martin said. “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people. You have a feeling of attunement with other people.”
The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.
“This feeling that we’re all in it together may have benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal generosity,” Dr. Griffiths said. “On the other hand, universal love isn’t always adaptive, either.”
The work has been supported by nonprofit groups like the Heffter Research Institute and MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
“There’s this coming together of science and spirituality,” said Rick Doblin, the executive director of MAPS. “We’re hoping that the mainstream and the psychedelic community can meet in the middle and avoid another culture war. Thanks to changes over the last 40 years in the social acceptance of the hospice movement and yoga and meditation, our culture is much more receptive now, and we’re showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can’t.”
Researchers are reporting preliminary success in using psilocybin to ease the anxiety of patients with terminal illnesses. Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist who is involved in an experiment at U.C.L.A., describes it as “existential medicine” that helps dying people overcome fear, panic and depression.
“Under the influences of hallucinogens,” Dr. Grob writes, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.”
Not only in the 70s did they make psychedelic ads for, on the surface, entirely non-related consumer products (like this totally trippy advertisement for a pancake restaurant). Friskies, the cat food producer, has just released a new ad for a can of food that will apparently make your cat trip boss.
De CIA heeft in 1951 honderden inwoners van een Frans dorp LSD laten innemen. De Amerikaanse inlichtingendienst had het tripmiddel stiekem in het deeg van de bakker gedaan. Daarmee is er eindelijk een oplossing voor “mysterie van het vervloekte brood”, zoals de inwoners van Pont-Saint-Esprit het incident zijn gaan noemen.
Honderden mensen kregen de LSD binnen en een groot deel van hen moest opgenomen worden in gekkenhuizen. Zo dacht één persoon dat hij kon vliegen. Hij schreeuwde: “Ik ben een vliegtuig!” en sprong vervolgens vanaf de tweede verdieping van zijn huis naar beneden waardoor hij zijn beide benen brak. Anderen dachten dat hun hoofd in gesmolten lood was veranderd of dat er grote rode bloemen uit hun buik groeiden. Vijf mensen vonden de dood. Destijds was het vermoeden dat de bakker tarwe had gebruikt die was besmet met moederkoorn, een schimmel dat aan LSD verwante stoffen bevat.
Maar onderzoeksjournalist H.P. Albarelli Jr. onthult nu dat de CIA en een inlichtingendienst van het Amerikaanse leger verantwoordelijk waren voor de massa-hallucinatie. De geheime diensten wilden onderzoeken of LSD gebruikt kon worden als wapen. De VS zou zeker nog tot 1965 hebben geëxperimenteerd met de drug. De Amerikanen waren daar niet alleen in. Ook het Britse leger heeft militairen LSD laten gebruiken.
Think drug-induced hallucinations, and the whirly, spirally, tunnel-vision-like patterns of psychedelic imagery immediately spring to mind. But it’s not just hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, cannabis or mescaline that conjure up these geometric structures. People have reported seeing them in near-death experiences, as a result of disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia, following sensory deprivation, or even just after applying pressure to the eyeballs. So common are these geometric hallucinations, that in the last century scientists began asking themselves if they couldn’t tell us something fundamental about how our brains are wired up. And it seems that they can.