Here’s one interesting facet highlighted of the broad studies currently being undertaken at some prominent US universities into the effects of psychedelics on depression treatment: lasting personality change. See our earlier post The return of psychedelic research in medical science for more background.
Both Discover Magazine and the science blog LabSpaces report about one result from the clinical experiments done at John Hopkins University with prescription of the hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). Sixty percent of the 51 participants in the study (pdf) show a measurable lasting personality change, in the part of personality known as ‘openness’ – defined as openness to new ideas and experiences and an ‘awareness of self and others’. The openness trait in people includes traits related to creativity, imagination, feelings, aesthetics and general broad-mindedness.
Measured on a model of personality features used in psychology, consisting of the character traits neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness, only the latter was shown to have increased even a year later. This is significant, as lasting personality change usually doesn’t occur that much in adults.
A single high dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms,” was enough to bring about a measureable personality change lasting at least a year in nearly 60 percent of the 51 participants in a new study, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers who conducted it.
Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experiences, the scientists say. Researchers in the field say that after the age of 30, personality doesn’t usually change significantly.
Personality was assessed at screening, one to two months after each drug session and approximately 14 months after the last drug session. Griffiths says he believes the personality changes found in this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many.
Nearly all of the participants in the new study considered themselves spiritually active (participating regularly in religious services, prayer or meditation). More than half had postgraduate degrees. The sessions with the otherwise illegal hallucinogen were closely monitored and volunteers were considered to be psychologically healthy.
“We don’t know whether the findings can be generalized to the larger population,” Griffiths says.
As a word of caution, Griffiths also notes that some of the study participants reported strong fear or anxiety for a portion of their daylong psilocybin sessions, although none reported any lingering harmful effects. He cautions, however, that if hallucinogens are used in less well supervised settings, the possible fear or anxiety responses could lead to harmful behaviors.
Griffiths says lasting personality change is rarely looked at as a function of a single discrete experience in the laboratory. In the study, the change occurred specifically in those volunteers who had undergone a “mystical experience,” as validated on a questionnaire developed by early hallucinogen researchers and refined by Griffiths for use at Hopkins. He defines “mystical experience” as among other things, “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”
Personality was measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, which covers openness and the other four broad domains that psychologists consider the makeup of personality: neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Only openness changed during the course of the study.
Griffiths says he believes psilocybin may have therapeutic uses. He is currently studying whether the hallucinogen has a use in helping cancer patients handle the depression and anxiety that comes along with a diagnosis, and whether it can help longtime cigarette smokers overcome their addiction.
A recent study found that most people treated with a single high dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychoactive mushrooms, showed a long-lasting change in personality—namely, an increase in openness. One of five broad measures of temperament used by psychologists, this quality is generally defined as openness to new ideas or experiences, awareness of feelings in the self and others, and is strongly tied to creativity and aesthetic appreciation. This is one of the first studies to link a single treatment with a drug in a laboratory setting to a long-lasting change in personality.
Although it might seem hard to believe, given the vagaries of spiritual experience, psychologists have a relatively well-defined and established definition for a “complete mystical experience:” one in which a person experiences a sense of unity with the world and other people; feelings of blessedness and sacredness; a sense of inner presence or divine force; and the feeling that what is perceived is “more real” than ordinary reality, among other qualities. Results by the lead author of this study, Johns Hopkins University researcher Roland Griffiths, have shown this can come about by taking psilocybin. But similar (or indistinguishable) experiences can occur through non-drug means, such as through prayer, fasting, sex, sensory-deprivation, etc.
People who had a “complete mystical experience” during their psilocybin trip scored significantly higher on measures of “openness” more than a year afterward. Those who didn’t have a complete mystical experience did not score significantly higher on these same measures.
Researchers say that the mystical experience brought about by drugs like psilocybin is likely responsible for the long-lasting change in openness, which the researchers say they think is permanent.
Spiritual experiences and personality traits are hard to measure. The link between psilocybin, mystical experiences, and changes in personality are also poorly understood. The results shouldn’t be taken as definitive proof that psilocybin causes permanent changes in personality.
Psilocybin can be dangerous, especially in people with underlying mental conditions, and the researchers don’t advise anybody to try this at home. Even in a carefully controlled setting, about one-third of the participants in the study experienced high levels of anxiety after taking the drug. But through the help of the study “guides” and the calming atmosphere of the controlled trial, everyone overcame the anxiety and not a single participant reported lasting ill effects from the experience
We’ve devoted attention to the subject on this blog ever since we started it, but here is once again an article from a high-profile online magazine about the renaissance in scientific research on the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs on the state of mind of people diagnosed with illnesses such as terminal and recurrent cancer. Salon has a must-read story about the uptick on studies into this matter across top-notch universities.
If you still think subjects like psychedelic drugs are for hippies living in the 1960s, think again. As previously written about in, among many others, the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and TIME, and reported about on CNN and BBC, psychedelic research is currently in its second big phase, with medical scientists and psychotherapists from Harvard, NYU, John Hopkins, Berkeley and several European universities running research programs on it. Psychedelic drug conferences are also increasingly being convened.
This Salon article describes research projects at John Hopkins, NYU and UCLA attempting to pinpoint how psychedelics alleviate fear and anxiety in patients. In controlled settings, lsd and psilocybin are administered in order to provide consciousness-expanding experiences. Patients report very existential experiences, and come down from the trip feeling better equipped mentally to deal with sickness and death. This is, therefore, a subset of the field of palliative care.
For people interested in it, the article also provides some historical background featuring such drug luminaries, writers and philosophers as William James (The Variety of Religious Experiences), Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, Brave New World, Island), and Timothy Leary. But the point to drive home is that unlike in the 1960s and 1970s, psychedelic research is currently conducted with a twenty-first century scientific focus, with a rather circumscribed goal. The goal no longer is to reform society, but to help people through appliance of medical science.
What for me was new in this piece was the info on how the current research programs on psychedelic drugs came about. Either way, I highly recommend this article if you want to know more about this highly interesting subject.
Kristof Kossut arrived at an unlikely address for his first psychedelic experience. The 60-year-old New Yorker and professional yachtsman opened the door not to an after-hours techno party, but to the bright reception room at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, a large spa-like space occupying the second floor of New York University’s College of Dentistry. Kossut was among the first subjects of an NYU investigation into the question: Can the mystical states of mind occasioned by psychedelic drugs help alleviate anxiety and depression in people with terminal and recurrent cancer?
Shortly before Kossut’s arrival on the morning of his session, two clinic employees entered a high-security storage room, which just happens to face a painting of a white rabbit. From a massive steel combination safe they removed a bottle containing one gram of synthesized psilocybin, the psychoactive agent animating the 200-member fungus family commonly known as “magic mushrooms.” The duo carefully measured the small container against the previous day’s weight, as if securing a store of weapons-grade plutonium. They then pill-pressed an amount of powder containing 20 milligrams of the molecule, first identified in 1958 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, most famous for his other psychedelic synthesis, LSD-25.
They delivered the pill to a converted exam room gutted of its dental chair and refitted for comfort with holistic panache: plush pillow-strewn sofa, Persian carpet, Buddha statuettes, books on spirituality and mysticism, a high-performance sound system. Only the ceiling lighting track betrays the former identity of New York City’s federally sanctioned psilocybin room.
Receiving the pill is Dr. Stephen Ross, a 40-year-old assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Medical School and the cancer study’s principal investigator. Ross has a precise scientific manner softened by an upbringing in Southern California, where his mother (also a doctor) took him to hospice centers as a child, sparking an interest in end-of-life issues. Now director of the addiction division at Bellevue, Ross is among the youngest of a new generation of psychedelic researchers. With his cancer study still two years away from publishing results, he is already looking ahead to testing psychedelic treatments for drug addiction and alcoholism.
For now, Ross is fully focused on treating existential anxiety in people like Kossut, who lies on the couch, ready for his initiation into the psychedelic mysteries. In the research jargon, Kossut is “psychedelic naive.” After swallowing the pill Ross presents — in the cap of a ceremonial ceramic mushroom — all he can do is close his eyes, lose himself in the preselected tabla drum and sitar music, and try to remember the advice to not fight it, to move ever deeper into the light, to let go …
“It was absolutely incredible,” remembers Kossut. “The first rush was a little scary as I realized it wasn’t the placebo. That passed and next I was crossing boundaries of time and space and reality. I felt this weightlessness, this sense of being close to an unspeakable beauty that was unlike anything in my experience. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was not afraid of anything. The wall of depression that was building up day by day, the fear that I was going to die soon, that my daughter is only 8 — all those things disappeared. I wanted to stay there. I wanted it to last longer.”
It did. More than one year after his psilocybin session, Kossut reports greatly improved states of emotional and psychological well-being. “I walked out of the session happy, unafraid of death,” he says. “I don’t know why, but a transformation took place after being in that peaceful place. I relaxed. I started enjoying food again and was able to gain weight. The session taught me to be fully in the present. I’m optimistic. Mentally and physically, just better.”
This glowing report — based on a single dose of a naturally occurring, non-addictive, low-toxicity substance — sounds impossible. Surely one pill can’t succeed where months of traditional psychotherapy and antidepressants usually fail. According to science, that’s not how drugs work. It’s foreign to the model. But high success rates in ongoing concurrent studies at NYU and Johns Hopkins strongly suggest that Kossut’s psilocybin-assisted psychological rebound is no fluke. So do the findings of a pilot project conducted by Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA. Between 2004 and 2008, Grob administered psilocybin to 12 cancer patients suffering fear, anxiety and depression. His data, published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed long-term diminished anxiety and improved mood in every subject. The NYU and Johns Hopkins studies build on Grob’s pilot program with more subjects and higher doses. Midway through the research, their results are just as strong, signaling larger, multi-site trials to come.
This is the subdued, clinical language of a psychedelic science renaissance quietly entering its third decade. If its practitioners and advocates avoid the utopian claims and liberationist rhetoric that defined the LSD gospel of the 1960s, this is no accident. A new generation of psychedelic researchers understands that public and official support depends on exorcising the ghost of Timothy Leary, whose democratic acid crusade grew out of and ultimately helped destroy the first wave of psychedelic science in the 1950s and ’60s. Their goal is not to promote the legalization of these drugs or tout their value for everyone, but to revive the once-great and now largely forgotten promise of psychedelic science. And that just might, among other things, change the way we confront and think about death.
In his new book Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness, Nicholas Humphrey, a distinguished evolutionary psychologist and philosopher, claims to have solved two fairly large intellectual conundrums. One is something of a technical matter, about which you may have thought little or not at all, unless you happen to be a philosopher. This is the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness. The problem is how an entity which is apparently immaterial like the human consciousness – it exists, but you can’t locate it, much less measure it – can have arisen from something purely physical, like the arrangement of cells that make up the human body. The second problem Humphrey claims he has solved is a rather more everyday one, about which you may well have puzzled yourself. This is the problem of the soul. Does it exist? What sort of a thing might it be? Does everyone have one, even atheists?
His solution to both these problems is the same, because for him the strange properties of consciousness, the fact that for those of us that have it the world of dull matter is suffused with meaning, beauty, relevance and awe – means that it makes sense to think that we are permanent inhabitants of a “soul-niche” or “soul-world”. As the jacket blurb of his book has it, “consciousness paves the way for spirituality”, by creating a “self-made show” that “lights up the world for us, making us feel special and transcendent.” Consciousness and the soul are one and the same.
If this all sounds a little bit metaphysical or New Agey, too much like one of those tiresome attempts to bring religion and science into cosy alignment, hold fast. For what, on the face of it, looks like an attempt to validate spirituality using the language of science turns out to be a way to expand the domain of science by accounting for spirituality, and the soul, alongside consciousness in a fully materialist account. Soul Dust is nothing less than Humphrey’s attempt to sketch out a materialist theory of consciousness, and write a “natural history” of the soul.
With this I highly agree though:
The second half – less technical, more poetic and, as Humphrey admits, pretty speculative – is devoted to the question of why? What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage? His answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.” Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live. As for religion? In his book he argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.” “Yes,” he tells me, “I suggest that organised religion is parasitic on spirituality, and in fact acts as a restraint on it.”
While the book received a lot of positive reviews, some negative ones have also appeared. Here’s one from The Guardian, for example.
In a neat little essay, Adam Frank writes something that resonates to some extent with some blatterings I wrote down almost a year ago. It is about the good old science versus religion debate, and about how both sides (in their simplistic form) get it wrong.
I think Frank gets it right. On both sides, to some extent, there is too great a stress on ‘knowing’ - that is, the idea that we can grasp something like ‘objective’ reality. For example, traditional, monotheistic, doctrinal religion revolves all around ‘knowing’ – with certainty – that God exists, and that all the religious and moral doctrines flowing from that fact are always and everywhere correct. There is no place for any spiritual, direct experience of the divine; it is essentially about following the literal ‘truth’ of a book. This can be seen at its worst in calvinism – which is why I think this is one of the most flawed versions of religion.
On the other hand, in positivist, materialist science a similar stress on objective ‘knowing’ can be discerned. Here, too, there is no place for something like experience, at it is reduced to whatever happens in atoms. Mankind is seen as nothing more than essentially a big machine. At its other end, there is a zeal for discovering what the universe is composed of; whether there are parallel universes, whether there is a Theory of Everything, etc. At some hypothetical endpoint of science, we are supposed to ’know’ everything and then be happy with it. This is a sort of ‘nihilism’ that, to me at least, is not only unsatisfying, but also a misrecognition of what it is like to ‘experience’ the world.
The fact that I can experience myself and my own consciousness for me at least is a sort of wonder for which science has no adequate explanation in terms of its meaning (that is, it can describe how it mechanically comes into being, but the experience in itself is idiosyncratic). Frank says something similar. Quoting Sartre, who said ”Even if God did exist, that would change nothing” (interpreted as meaning that even if we would have ‘knowledge’ of a God, that would still leave the mystery of existence untouched), he proposes that we should focus on the act of being rather than the act of knowing.
This is where ‘spirituality’ (screw that word) comes in. But rather than having to do with ridiculous New Agey stuff, this is a call for abandoning the bastions of certainty, found in monotheistic religion and science, which only lead to needless disputes, and focusing on the immediate experience of the self. And then maybe with its connection to other parts of being. I think this is in a nutshell what Heidegger is about. But you can also find it in the eradication of the Cartesian mind-body divide in tenets of Eastern thinking. And in mysticism. Or do drugs.
What exactly are we looking for? What fuels so much of the passion and intensity behind the debates over religion, the debates between religions and the debates surrounding science and religion? At the heart of these debates you will often find the issue of “knowing.”
Knowing if God exists, or not. Knowing how the Universe began and if a creator was necessary, or not. Knowing how human beings “became” and what constitutes appropriate moral codes in light of that becoming. Always and again, the emphasis is on knowledge, on the certainty of understanding something, of knowing some fact and its meaning. What a tragic mistake.
The great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “People don’t want the meaning of life, they want the experience of life.” He could not have hit the nail more firmly on the head.
One thing I have never understood in the vitriol that people manage to dredge up in these science vs. religion battles is their lack clarity about goals. Is human spiritual endeavor really about “knowing” the existence of a superbeing? Does this academic “knowing”, as in “I can prove this to be true,” really what lies behind the spiritual genius of people like the ninth century Sufi poet Rumi, the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen, or more modem examples like Martin Luther King or Ghandi?
There are many reasons human beings institutionalized their spiritual longing into religions. Those reasons often devolved into considerations of power, control and real estate. Those institutions certainly have needed to enforce creed and doctrine, i.e. “knowledge.”
But the reasons individuals find their lives transformed by spiritual longing are intimate and deeply personal affairs having little to do with dusty “proofs for the existence of God.” As all those “spiritual but not religious” folks popping up in surveys on religion will tell you, the essence of the question is about experience, not facts.
Along a similar vein, in the pro-science/anti-religion camps one often hears the quest for understanding the universe put in equally ultimate, quasi-theological terms. Finding the final theory, the Theory of Everything, is held up as a kind of moment “when the truth shall be revealed once and for all.” While many practicing scientists might not see it this way, the scientific knowledge/enlightenment trope has been there in popular culture for a long time reaching all the back to Faust and up through movies like Pi.
As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said “Even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” One way to interpret his meaning was that a formulaic “knowledge” of a superbeing’s existence is beside the point when the real issue before us every day, all day is the verb “to be.”
It’s the act of being that gives rise to our suffering and our moments of enlightenment. Right there, right in the very experience of life, is the warm, embodied truth we long for so completely.
Spirituality, at its best, points us away from easy codifications when it shows us how to immerse ourselves in the simple, inescapable act of being. Science at its root is also an expression of reverence and awe for the endless varied, resonantly beautiful experience we can find ourselves immersed in. So knowing the meaning of life as encoded in a religious creed on a page or an equation on a blackboard is not the issue. A deeper, richer experience of this one life: that is the issue!
So, can we stop thinking that discussions about science and religion have to focus on who has the best set of facts?
When it comes to the natural world, it’s hard to see how science is not going win the “facts” war hands down. But if we broaden our view to see being as the central issue, then connections between science and spiritual longing might be seen in an entirely different light.
Two weeks ago I wrote about how Obama’s personal faith, which was clearly present in his presidential campaign, has now become invisible to the public eye, and how this could possibly pose a problem for Obama in the future. It seems this is already becoming reality. In an article in the Boston Globe church leaders are reacting to the absence of faith in Obama’s public life:
“You can’t be using the church just to get elected and then push the church to the side,’’ said the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus, a prominent Chicago pastor who had campaigned for Obama among Hispanic evangelicals, many of whom had voted in earlier elections for George W. Bush. “If the president says he’s Christian, then in his narrative, and in his speeches and in his life, that should be displayed.’’
Several pastors who support Obama said church membership would send an important signal about the depth of his conviction.
“It’s only by being part of a church community that he’s going to get his own faith grounded,’’ said Bruce Wall, pastor of Global Ministries Christian Church, in Dorchester . “George Bush did not hide his faith. He was a man of prayer, whether you supported him or not.’’
Obama’s aides and spiritual advisors mention several explanations for Obama’s behaviour:
“There are several ways that he is continuing to grow in his faith, all of them – or practically of all them – he’s trying to keep as private and personal as possible so they will not be politicized,’’ said Pastor Joel C. Hunter, who is part of an inner circle of pastors the president consults by phone for spiritual guidance.
“He’ll talk about his Christian faith when it feels right and appropriate, and other times he’s just going to practice his Christian faith through the way he lives his life,’’ said DuBois, a Pentecostal pastor who was Obama’s campaign liaison to faith groups. “It’s not about a political strategy or a communication strategy. It’s about him walking the walk, which is always more valuable than just talking the talk.’’
Other pastors said they see religious values behind the president’s policies, even if Obama was less voluble than he was before the election.
“When you’re talking about universal health care policy, you’re talking about helping, ‘the least of these,’ ’’ said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a retired pastor who is executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a community organization serving black and Latino youth. “When you talk about building a coalition around the world to fight terrorism, you’re talking about being your brother’s keeper.’’
After Obama was the only Democratic candidate during the presidential campaign who was able to “get religion”, he must now be careful not to undo the popularity he has among believers. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life this is already starting to happen. A poll taken in August already indicated that ”the proportion of Americans who saw the Democratic Party as friendly to religion had dropped to Bush-era levels, at 29 percent, after peaking at 38 percent at the height of the Obama campaign a year earlier”. I don’t think the President has chosen a sensible strategy by keeping his faith private, and I’m afraid the story of ”the faith vote” returning to the Republican party will continue to develop…
Journalists, political commentators and theologians still don’t know what to make of Obama’s religiosity. Is he completely secular and Christian only in name? Is he a traditional Protestant Christian? Or is he a spiritual progressive, who draws from a wide range of traditions and texts for spiritual inspiration? Fact is, he only attended church 4 times during the first year of his presidency and has not found a church in Washington yet. I think, he has to be careful not to alienate large groups of Christian voters by such behaviour.
During his campaign Obama was advised by progressive leaders from different religions and denominations, like Jim Wallis, Michael Lerner and Rick Warren. In his inaugural address he set the tone for the religious agenda of his administration, with an unprecedented presidential recognition of atheists:
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers.
Quite similar to his “post-partisan” legislative work, is his ambition concerning religion, which seems to be trying to cross religious and denominatonal boundaries and make religious groups cooperate. The first one is not really working out for him, to put it mildly. Will he achieve his spiritual goals?
Today, on the day of the National Prayer Breakfast, the Washington Post has an interesting piece on Obama’s faith. It seems his current religious life is limited to a daily message on his Blackberry:
Every morning, sometimes as early as 5:30 a.m., a short religious passage comes across President Obama’s BlackBerry, sent by one of his aides.
The messages come from “a range of sources,” an official said — sometimes a passage of Scripture or, on an upbeat day, a psalm. At other times the daily message will come from a book that Dubois thinks the president would enjoy. More than once the devotional has been culled from the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who wrote extensively on the “just war” theory, which Obama has cited in his thinking about Afghanistan and in his Nobel prize acceptance speech. Other devotionals come from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which Obama was given as a gift at last year’s prayer breakfast.
For more in-depth analysis of Obama’s spirituality check out The Immanent Framehere and here.