The soul should always stand ajar. —EMILY DICKINSON
CHAPTER THREE: HISTORY
As the literary theorists would say, the psychedelic experience is highly “constructed.” If you are told you will have a spiritual experience, chances are pretty good that you will, and, likewise, if you are told the drug may drive you temporarily insane, or acquaint you with the collective unconscious, or help you access “cosmic consciousness,” or revisit the trauma of your birth, you stand a good chance of having exactly that kind of experience
Psychologists call these self-fulfilling prophecies “expectancy effects,” and they turn out to be especially powerful in the case of psychedelics
the molecular structure of mescaline closely resembled that of adrenaline. Could schizophrenia result from some kind of dysfunction in the metabolism of adrenaline, transforming it into a compound that produced the schizophrenic rupture with reality?
The fact that such a vanishingly small number of LSD molecules could exert such a profound effect on the mind was an important clue that a system of neurotransmitters with dedicated receptors might play a role in organizing our mental experience. This insight eventually led to the discovery of serotonin and the class of antidepressants known as SSRIs.
in 1953, Osmond and Hoffer noted that the LSD experience appeared to share many features with the descriptions of delirium tremens reported by alcoholics—the hellish, days-long bout of madness alcoholics often suffer while in the throes of withdrawal. Many recovering alcoholics look back on the hallucinatory horrors of the DTs as a conversion experience and the basis of the spiritual awakening that allows them to remain sober.
controlled LSD-produced delirium help alcoholics stay sober?”
Osmond and Hoffer tested this hypothesis on more than seven hundred alcoholics, and in roughly half the cases, they reported, the treatment worked: the volunteers got sober and remained so for at least several months
From the first,” Hoffer wrote, “we considered not the chemical, but the experience as a key factor in therapy
The emphasis on what subjects felt represented a major break with the prevailing ideas of behaviorism in psychology, in which only observable and measurable outcomes counted and subjective experience was deemed irrelevant
When the therapists began to analyze the reports of volunteers, their subjective experiences while on LSD bore little if any resemblance to the horrors of the DTs, or to madness of any kind. To the contrary, their experiences were, for the most part, incredibly—and bafflingly—positive.
descriptions of, say, “a transcendental feeling of being united with the world,” one of the most common feelings reported. Rather than madness, most volunteers described sensations such as a new ability “to see oneself objectively”; “enhancement in the sensory fields”; profound new understandings “in the field of philosophy or religion”; and “increased sensitivity to the feelings of others.”*
What a psychiatrist might diagnose as depersonalization, hallucinations, or mania might better be thought of as instances of mystical union, visionary experience, or ecstasy. Could it be that the doctors were mistaking transcendence for insanity?
one of the best ways to avoid a bad session was the presence of an engaged and empathetic therapist, ideally someone who had had his or her own LSD experience. They came to suspect that the few psychotic reactions they did observe might actually be an artifact of the metaphorical white room and white-coated clinician. Though the terms “set” and “setting” would not be used in this context for several more years (and became closely identified with Timothy Leary’s work at Harvard a decade later), Osmond and Hoffer were already coming to appreciate the supreme importance of those factors in the success of their treatment
Few members of AA realize that the whole idea of a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a “higher power”—a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous—can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.
LSD could reliably occasion the kind of spiritual awakening he believed one needed in order to get sober; however, he did not believe the LSD experience was anything like the DTs, thus driving another nail in the coffin of that idea. Bill W. thought there might be a place for LSD therapy in AA, but his colleagues on the board of the fellowship strongly disagreed, believing that to condone the use of any mind-altering substance risked muddying the organization’s brand and message.
Therapists who administered doses of LSD as low as 25 micrograms (and seldom higher than 150 micrograms) reported that their patients’ ego defenses relaxed, allowing them to bring up and discuss difficult or repressed material with relative ease. This suggested that the drugs could be used as an aid to talking therapy, because at these doses the patients’ egos remained sufficiently intact to allow them to converse with a therapist and later recall what was discussed.
Freud called dreams “the royal road” to the subconscious, bypassing the gates of both the ego and the superego, yet the road has plenty of ruts and potholes: patients don’t always remember their dreams, and when they do recall them, it is often imperfectly. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin promised a better route into the subconscious.
Stanislav Grof, who trained as a psychoanalyst, found that under moderate doses of LSD his patients would quickly establish a strong transference with the therapist, recover childhood traumas, give voice to buried emotions, and, in some cases, actually relive the experience of their birth—our first trauma and, Grof believed (following Otto Rank), a key determinant of personality. (Grof did extensive research trying to correlate his patients’ recollections of their birth experience on LSD with contemporaneous reports from medical personnel and parents. He concluded that with the help of LSD many people can indeed recall the circumstances of their birth, especially when it was a difficult one.)
He came to believe that “under LSD the fondest theories of the therapist are confirmed by his patient.” The expectancy effect was such that patients working with Freudian therapists returned with Freudian insights (framed in terms of childhood trauma, sexual drives, and oedipal emotions), while patients working with Jungian therapists returned with vivid archetypes from the attic of the collective unconscious, and Rankians with recovered memories of their birth traumas.
Cohen wrote that “any explanation of the patient’s problems, if firmly believed by both the therapist and the patient, constitutes insight or is useful as insight.” Yet he qualified this perspective by acknowledging it was “nihilistic,” which, scientifically speaking, it surely was. For it takes psychotherapy perilously close to the world of shamanism and faith healing, a distinctly uncomfortable place for a scientist to be. And yet as long as it works, as long as it heals people, why should anyone care?
Andrew Weil in his 1972 book, The Natural Mind.
They do something, surely, but most of what that is may be self-generated. Or as Stanislav Grof put it, psychedelics are “nonspecific amplifiers” of mental processes.)
an obscure former bootlegger and gunrunner, spy, inventor, boat captain, ex-con, and Catholic mystic named Al Hubbard
Hubbard was the first researcher to grasp the critical importance of set and setting in shaping the psychedelic experience. He instinctively understood that the white walls and fluorescent lighting of the sanitized hospital room were all wrong. So he brought pictures and music, flowers and diamonds, into the treatment room, where he would use them to prime patients for a mystical revelation or divert a journey when it took a terrifying turn.
What Hubbard was bringing into the treatment room was something well known to any traditional healer. Shamans have understood for millennia that a person in the depths of a trance or under the influence of a powerful plant medicine can be readily manipulated with the help of certain words, special objects, or the right kind of music
Vancouver, where he had persuaded Hollywood Hospital to dedicate an entire wing to treating alcoholics with LSD.* Hubbard would often fly his plane down to Los Angeles to discreetly ferry Hollywood celebrities up to Vancouver for treatment. It was this sideline that earned him the nickname Captain Trips
Al Hubbard moved between these far-flung centers of research like a kind of psychedelic honeybee, disseminating information, chemicals, and clinical expertise while building what became an extensive network across North America
Seventy-eight percent of clients said the experience had increased their ability to love, 71 percent registered an increase in self-esteem, and 83 percent said that during their sessions they had glimpsed “a higher power, or ultimate reality.” Those who had such an experience were the ones who reported the most lasting benefits from their session. Don Allen told me that most clients emerged with “notable and fairly sustainable changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, way above statistical probability.” Specifically, they became “much less judgmental, much less rigid, more open, and less defended
The foundation also conducted studies to determine if LSD could in fact enhance creativity and problem solving
The Whole Earth Network Brand would subsequently gather together (which included Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Howard Rheingold, and John Perry Barlow)
Herbert Kelman, a colleague in the department who later became Leary’s chief adversary, recalls the new professor as “personable” (Kelman helped him find his first house) but says, “I had misgivings about him from the beginning. He would often talk out of the top of his head about things he knew nothing about, like existentialism, and he was telling our students psychology was all a game. It seemed to me a bit cavalier and irresponsible.”
In four hours by the swimming pool in Cuernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain, and its structures than I did in the preceding fifteen as a diligent psychologist,” he wrote later in Flashbacks, his 1983 memoir. “I learned that the brain is an underutilized biocomputer . . . I learned that normal consciousness is one drop in an ocean of intelligence. That consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded. That the brain can be reprogrammed.”
Drawing on their extensive fieldwork, however, Leary did do some original work theorizing the idea of “set” and “setting,” deploying the words in this context for the first time in the literature
The Concord Prison Experiment sought to discover if the potential of psilocybin to change personality could be used to reduce recidivism in a population of hardened criminals
But when Rick Doblin at MAPS meticulously reconstructed the Concord experiment decades later, reviewing the outcomes subject by subject, he concluded that Leary had exaggerated the data; in fact, there was no statistically significant difference in the rates of recidivism between the two groups.
Their unspoken model was the Eleusinian mysteries, in which the Greek elite gathered in secret to ingest the sacred kykeon and share a night of revelation
It’s often said that in the 1960s psychedelics “escaped from the laboratory,” but it would probably be more accurate to say they were thrown over the laboratory wall, and never with as much loft or velocity as by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at the end of 1962
another explosive article in the Crimson got them both fired. This one was written by an undergraduate named Andrew Weil. Weil had arrived at Harvard with a keen interest in psychedelic drugs—he had devoured Huxley’s Doors of Perception in high school—and when he learned about the Psilocybin Project, he beat a path to Professor Leary’s office door to ask if he could participate.
But he wanted badly to be part of Leary and Alpert’s more exclusive club, so when in the fall of 1962 Weil began to hear about other undergraduates who had received drugs from Richard Alpert, he was indignant. He went to his editor at the Crimson and proposed an investigation.
This was not, suffice it to say, Andrew Weil’s proudest moment, and when I spoke to him about it recently, he confessed that he’s felt badly about the episode ever since and had sought to make amends to both Leary and Ram Dass. (Two years after his departure from Harvard, Alpert embarked on a spiritual journey to India and returned as Ram Dass.) Leary readily accepted Weil’s apology—the man was apparently incapable of holding a grudge—
but Ram Dass refused to talk to Weil for years, which pained him. But after Ram Dass suffered a stroke in 1997, Weil traveled to Hawaii to seek his forgiveness. Ram Dass finally relented, telling Weil that he had come to regard being fired from Harvard as a blessing. “If you hadn’t done what you did,” he told Weil, “I would never have become Ram Dass.”
As Ram Dass, and the author of the 1971 classic Be Here Now, he would put his own lasting mark on American culture, having blazed one of the main trails by which Eastern religion found its way into the counterculture and then the so-called New Age.
Andrew Weil, who as a young doctor volunteered in the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in 1968, saw a lot of bad trips and eventually developed an effective way to “treat” them. “I would examine the patient, determine it was a panic reaction, and then tell him or her, ‘Will you excuse me for a moment? There’s someone in the next room who has a serious problem.’ They would immediately begin to feel much better.”
CHAPTER FOUR: TRAVELOGUE
I have in mind a specific subset of that world, populated by perhaps
a couple hundred “guides,” or therapists, working with a variety of psychedelic substances in a carefully prescribed manner, with the intention of healing the ill or bettering the well by helping them fulfill their spiritual, creative, or emotional potential
Many of these guides are credentialed therapists, so by doing this work they are risking not only their freedom but also their professional licenses
Some are religious professionals—rabbis and ministers of various denominations; a few call themselves shamans; one described himself as a druid
a shaggy reunion of that whole 1970s class of alternative “modalities” that usually get lumped together under the rubric of the “human potential movement” and that has as its world headquarters Esalen
Zeff also left a posthumous (and anonymous) account of his work, in the form of a 1997 book called The Secret Chief, a series of interviews with a therapist called Jacob conducted by his close friend Myron Stolaroff. (In 2004, Zeff’s family gave Stolaroff permission to disclose his identity and republish the book as The Secret Chief Revealed.)
The guide had asked him to bring along an object of personal significance, so Zeff brought his Torah
helped his patients break through their defenses, bringing buried layers of unconscious material to the surface, and achieve spiritual insights, often in a single session
During his long career, Zeff helped codify many of the protocols of underground therapy, setting forth the “agreements” guides typically make with their clients—regarding confidentiality (strict), sexual contact (forbidden), obedience to the therapist’s instructions during the session (absolute), and so on—and developing many of the ceremonial touches, such as having participants take the medicine from a cup: “a very important symbol of the transformation experience
For example, some prominent underground therapists have been recruited to help train a new cohort of psychedelic guides to work in university trials of psychedelic drugs. When the Hopkins team wanted to study the role of music in the guided psilocybin session, it reached out to several underground guides, surveying their musical practices.
James Fadiman came to the MAPS conference “on the science track,” to give a talk about the value of the guided entheogenic journey
Soon after the meeting in San Jose, a “wiki” appeared on the Internet—a collaborative website where individuals can share documents and together create new content. (Fadiman included the URL in his 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.)
There’s also a link to a thoughtful “Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides,” which acknowledges the psychological and physical risks of journeying and emphasizes the guide’s ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the client
Perhaps the most useful document on the website is the “Guidelines for Voyagers and Guides”
I found a small shrine populated with spiritual artifacts from a bewildering variety of traditions: a Buddha, a crystal, a crow’s wing, a brass bowl for burning incense, a branch of sage. At the back of the shrine stood two framed photographs, one of a Hindu guru I didn’t recognize and the other of a Mexican curandera I did: María Sabina.
clients were often asked to contribute an item of personal significance before embarking on their journeys. What I was tempted to dismiss as a smorgasbord of equal-opportunity New Age tchotchkes, I would eventually come to regard more sympathetically, as the material expression of the syncretism prevalent in the psychedelic community.
the first New Age graduate school”—the California Institute of Integral Studies. Founded in 1968, the institute specializes in “transpersonal psychology,” a school of therapy with a strong spiritual orientation rooted in the work of Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow as well as the “wisdom traditions” of the East and the West, including Native American healing and South American shamanism. Stanislav Grof, a pioneer of both transpersonal and psychedelic therapy, has been on the faculty for many years
In 2016, the institute began offering the nation’s first certificate program in psychedelic therapy.
vocation. “I help people find out who they are so they can live their lives fully.
You need a strong ego in order to let go of it and then be able to spring back to your boundaries.
The biggest fears that come up are the fear of death and the fear of madness. But the only thing to do is surrender. So surrender!
He was not overly concerned about the psychedelics—most of them concentrate their effects in the mind with remarkably little impact on the cardiovascular system—but one of the drugs I mentioned he advised I avoid. This was MDMA, also known as Ecstasy or Molly, which has been on schedule 1 since the mid-1980s, when it emerged as a popular rave drug.
MDMA lowers psychological defenses and helps to swiftly build a bond between patient and therapist
Guides told me MDMA was a good way to “break the ice” and establish trust before the psychedelic journey.
Wilhelm Reich, “my hero.” Along the way, he discovered that LSD was a powerful tool for exploring the depths of his own psyche, allowing him to reexperience and then let go of the anger and depression that hobbled him as a young man. “There was more light in my life after that. Something shifted.”
These medicines have shown me that something quote-unquote impossible exists. But I don’t think it’s magic or supernatural. It’s a technology of consciousness we don’t understand yet.”
For some people, the privilege of having had a mystical experience tends to massively inflate the ego, convincing them they’ve been granted sole possession of a key to the universe. This is an excellent recipe for creating a guru. The certitude and condescension for mere mortals that usually come with that key can render these people insufferable. But that wasn’t Fritz. To the contrary. His otherworldly experiences had humbled him, opening him up to possibilities and mysteries without closing him to skepticism—or to the pleasures of everyday life on this earth
he met Stan Grof at a breathwork course at Esalen
Grof was ostensibly teaching holotropic breathwork, the non-pharmacological modality he had developed after psychedelics were made illegal
he put on some music, something generically tribal and rhythmic, dominated by the pounding of a drum
to go with a modest dose—a hundred micrograms, with “a booster” after an hour or two if I wanted one
It’s like when you see a mountain lion,” he suggested. “If you run, it will chase you. So you must stand your ground.” I was reminded of the “flight instructions” that the guides employed at Johns Hopkins: instead of turning away from any monster that appears, move toward it, stand your ground, and demand to know, “What are you doing in my mind? What do you have to teach me?”
I was now joining, the lineage of all the tribes and peoples down through time and around the world who used such medicines in their rites of initiation
Yet I still had agency: I could change at will the contents of my thoughts, but in this dreamy state, so wide open to suggestion, I was happy to let the terrain, and the music, dictate my path.
I got absorbed watching a white tracery of mycelium threading among the roots and linking the trees in a network intricate beyond comprehension. I knew all about this mycelial network, how it forms a kind of arboreal Internet allowing the trees in a forest to exchange information, but now what had been merely an intellectual conceit was a vivid, felt reality of which I had become a part.
Love is everything.
No—you must not have heard me: it’s everything!
For what after all is the sense of banality, or the ironic perspective, if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed—by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world. If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled “Known,” to be quickly shelved with little thought to the marvels therein, and “Novel,” to which, understandably, we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight
I never achieved a transcendent, “non-dual” or “mystical-like” experience, and as I recapped the journey with Fritz the following morning, I registered a certain disappointment. But the novel plane of consciousness I’d spent a few hours wandering on had been interesting and pleasurable and, I think, useful to me. I would have to see if its effects endured, but it felt as though the experience had opened me up in unexpected ways.
It reminded me of the pleasantly bizarre mental space that sometimes opens up at night in bed when we’re poised between the states of being awake and falling asleep—so-called hypnagogic consciousness.
For the moment that interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show, was blessedly out of the way,” as Aldous Huxley put it in The Doors of Perception
The notion of a few years of psychotherapy condensed into several hours seemed about right
she recited a long and elaborate Native American prayer. She invoked in turn the power of each of the cardinal directions, the four elements, and the animal, plant, and mineral realms, the spirits of which she implored to help guide me on my journey.
an amethyst in the shape of a heart, a purple crystal holding a candle, little cups
filled with water, a bowl holding a few rectangles of dark chocolate, the two “sacred items” she had asked me to bring (a bronze Buddha a close friend had brought back from a trip to the East; the psilocybin coin Roland Griffiths had given me at our first meeting)
a fragrant South American wood that Indians burn ceremonially, and the jet-black wing of a crow
I was God and God was me
The reawakening of her spiritual life led her onto the path of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to take the vow of an initiate: “‘To assist all sentient beings in their awakening and their enlightenment.’ Which is still my vocation.”
two grams. Mary planned to offer me another two grams along the way, for a total of four. This would roughly approximate the dose being given to volunteers in the NYU and Hopkins trials and was equivalent to roughly three hundred micrograms of LSD—twice as much as I had taken with Fritz.
Called the Mindfold Relaxation Mask, Mary told me, it had been expressly designed for this purpose by Alex Grey, the psychedelic artist.
sound begat space
Relax and float downstream
I saw she had turned into María Sabina, the Mexican curandera who had given psilocybin to R. Gordon Wasson in that dirt basement in Huautla de Jiménez sixty years ago
Later, when I did, she was flattered: María Sabina was her hero.
By adulthood, the mind has gotten very good at observing and testing reality and developing confident predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our survival. So rather than starting from scratch to build a new perception from every batch of raw data delivered by the senses, the mind jumps to the most sensible conclusion based on past experience combined with a tiny sample of that data. Our brains are prediction machines optimized by experience, and when it comes to faces, they have boatloads of experience: faces are always convex, so this hollow mask must be a prediction error to be corrected.
There was life after the death of the ego. This was big news.
When I think back on this part of the experience, I’ve occasionally wondered if this enduring awareness might have been the “Mind at Large” that Aldous Huxley described during his mescaline trip in 1953. Huxley never quite defined what he meant by the term—except to speak of “the totality of the awareness belonging to Mind at Large”—but he seems to be describing a universal, shareable form of consciousness unbounded by any single brain. Others have called it cosmic consciousness, the Oversoul, or Universal Mind
Could it be there is another ground on which to plant our feet? For the first time since embarking on this project, I began to understand what the volunteers in the cancer-anxiety trials had been trying to tell me: how it was that a psychedelic journey had granted them a perspective from which the very worst life can throw at us, up to and including death, could be regarded objectively and accepted with equanimity.
Bleached skulls and bones and the faces of the familiar dead passed before me, aunts and uncles and grandparents, friends and teachers and my father-in-law—with a voice telling me I had failed to properly mourn all of them. It was true. I had never really reckoned the death of anyone in my life; something had always gotten in the way. I could do it here and now and did.
We settled on the second of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, performed by Yo-Yo Ma
The suite in D minor is a spare and mournful piece that I’d heard many times before, often at funerals, but until this moment I had never truly listened to it.
Never before has a piece of music pierced me as deeply as this one did now. Though even to call it “music” is to diminish what now began to flow, which was nothing less than the stream of human consciousness, something in which one might glean the very meaning of life and, if you could bear it, read life’s last chapter. (A question formed: Why don’t we play music like this at births as well as funerals? And the answer came immediately: there is too much life-already-lived in this piece, and poignancy for the passing of time that no birth, no beginning, could possibly withstand it.)
Four hours and four grams of magic mushroom into the journey, this is where I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music. Instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe
minutes it took for that piece to, well, change everything. Or so it seemed; now, its vibrations subsiding, I’m less certain. But for the duration of those exquisite moments, Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death—to the deaths of the people now present to me, Bob’s and Ruthellen’s and Roy’s, Judith’s father’s, and so many others, but also to the deaths to come and to my own, no longer so far off. Losing myself in this music was a kind of practice for that—for losing myself, period. Having let go of the rope of self and slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty—Bach’s sublime music, I mean, and Yo-Yo Ma’s bow caressing those four strings suspended over that envelope of air—I felt as though I’d passed beyond the reach of suffering and regret.
what had I learned? That I had had no reason to be afraid: no sleeping monsters had awakened in my unconscious and turned on me. This was a deep fear that went back several decades, to a
terrifying moment in a hotel room in Seattle when, alone and having smoked too much cannabis, I had had to marshal every last ounce of will to keep myself from doing something deeply crazy and irrevocable
Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability”—the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or—it comes to the same thing—widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness—that platitude—is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.
That’s when Andrew Weil and Wade Davis published a paper called “Identity of a New World Psychoactive Toad
I had the feeling—no, the knowledge—that every single thing there is is made of love.
There are children to raise. And there is an infinite amount of time to be dead.’”
How can you be sure this was a genuine spiritual event and not just a drug experience?” “It’s an irrelevant question,” she replied coolly. “This was something being revealed to me.”
I felt for the first time gratitude for the very fact of being, that there is anything whatsoever
Not sure exactly where to begin, I realized it might be useful to measure my experiences against those of the volunteers in the Hopkins and NYU studies. I decided to fill out one of the Mystical Experience Questionnaires (MEQs)* that the scientists had their subjects complete, hoping to learn if mine qualified.
The MEQ asked me to rank a list of thirty mental phenomena—thoughts, images, and sensations that psychologists and philosophers regard as typical of a mystical experience. (The questionnaire draws on the work of William James, W. T. Stace, and Walter Pahnke.)
I concluded that the MEQ was a poor net for capturing my encounter with the toad. The result was psychological bycatch, I decided, and should probably be tossed out.
Reflecting just on the cello interlude, for example, I could easily confirm the “fusion of [my] personal self into a larger whole,” as well as the “feeling that [I] experienced something profoundly sacred and holy” and “of being at a spiritual height” and even the “experience of unity with ultimate reality
My psilocybin journey with Mary yielded a sixty-six on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire. For some reason, I felt stupidly proud of my score. (There I was again, doing being.
Yet I think it would be wrong to discard the mystical, if only because so much work has been done by so many great minds—over literally thousands of years—to find the words for this extraordinary human experience and make sense of it. When we read the testimony of these minds, we find a striking commonality in their descriptions, even if we civilians can’t quite understand what in the world (or out of it) they’re talking about.
According to scholars of mysticism, these shared traits generally include a vision of unity in which all things, including the self, are subsumed (expressed in the phrase “All is one”); a sense of certainty about what one has perceived (“Knowledge has been revealed to me”); feelings of joy, blessedness, and satisfaction; a transcendence of the categories we rely on to organize the world, such as time and space or self and other; a sense that whatever has been apprehended is somehow sacred (Wordsworth: “Something far more deeply interfused” with meaning) and often paradoxical (so while the self may vanish, awareness abides). Last is the conviction that the experience is ineffable, even as thousands of words are expended in the attempt to communicate its power. (Guilty.)
Likewise, certain mystical passages from literature that once seemed so overstated and abstract that I read them indulgently (if at all), now I can read as a subspecies of journalism. Here are three nineteenth-century examples, but you can find them in any century. Ralph Waldo Emerson crossing a wintry New England commons in “Nature”: Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. Or Walt Whitman, in the early lines of the first (much briefer and more mystical) edition of Leaves of Grass: Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth; And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own, And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own, And that all the men ever born are also my brothers . . . and the women my sisters and lovers, And that a kelson* of the creation is love. And here is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, describing in a letter the “waking trance” that descended upon him from time to time since his boyhood: All at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade into boundless being; and this was not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest; utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility; the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.
But I have no problem using the word “spiritual” to describe elements of what I saw and felt, as long as it is not taken in a supernatural sense. For me, “spiritual” is a good name for some of the powerful mental phenomena that arise when the voice of the ego is muted or silenced.
The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up.
When Huxley speaks of the mind’s “reducing valve”—the faculty that eliminates as much of the world from our conscious awareness as it lets in—he is talking about the ego. That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality, “a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.”
In the words of R. M. Bucke, a nineteenth-century Canadian psychiatrist and mystic, “I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence.”) “Ecology” and “coevolution” are scientific names for the same phenomena: every species a subject acting on other subjects
So perhaps spiritual experience is simply what happens in the space that opens up in the mind when “all mean egotism vanishes.” Wonders (and terrors) we’re ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness; the far ends of the sensory spectrum, which are normally invisible to us, our senses can suddenly admit. While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing unexpected patterns of thought and new rays of relation. The gulf between self and world, that no-man’s-land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected, “part and particle” of some larger entity. Whether we call that entity Nature, the Mind at Large, or God hardly matters. But it seems to be in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.
CHAPTER FIVE THE NEUROSCIENCE Your Brain on Psychedelics
All three molecules are tryptamines. A tryptamine is a type of organic compound (an indole, to be exact) distinguished by the presence of two linked rings, one of them with six atoms and the other with five
The group of tryptamines we call “the classical psychedelics” have a strong affinity with one particular type of serotonin receptor, called the 5-HT2A. These receptors are found in large numbers in the human cortex, the outermost, and evolutionarily most recent, layer of the brain. Basically, the psychedelics resemble serotonin closely enough that they can attach themselves to this receptor site in such a way as to activate it to do various things.
This has led some scientists to speculate that the human body must produce some other, more bespoke chemical for the express purpose of activating the 5-HT2A receptor—perhaps an endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances, perhaps when dreaming
One candidate for that chemical is the psychedelic molecule DMT,
He did this by giving subjects a drug called ketanserin that blocks the receptor; when he then administered psilocybin, nothing happened.
To the dissolution of my ego, for example, and the collapse of any distinction between subject and object? Or to the morphing in my mind’s eye of Mary into María Sabina?
All these questions concern the contents of consciousness
What neuroscientists and philosophers and psychologists mean by consciousness is the unmistakable sense we have that we are, or possess, a self that has experiences.
How do you explain mind—the subjective quality of experience—in terms of meat, that is, in terms of the physical structures or chemistry of the brain?
Some scientists have raised the possibility that consciousness may pervade the universe, suggesting we think of it the same way we do electromagnetism or gravity, as one of the fundamental building blocks of reality.
A psychedelic drug is powerful enough to disrupt the system we call normal waking consciousness in ways that may force some of its fundamental properties into view.
In contrast, someone on a psychedelic remains awake and able to report on what he or she is experiencing in real time.
links between our brains and our minds.
neuroscientist named Robin Carhart-Harris has been working since 2009 to identify the “neural correlates,” or physical counterparts, of the psychedelic experience. By injecting volunteers with LSD and psilocybin and then using a variety of scanning technologies—including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoencephalography (MEG)
His professor sent him to read a book called Realms of the Human Unconscious by Stanislav Grof.
he would use psychedelic drugs and modern brain-imaging technologies to build a foundation of hard science beneath the edifice of psychoanalysis. “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious,” he reminded me. “Psychedelics could turn out to be the superhighway
LSD, Feilding believes, enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation. A second way to achieve a similar result is by means of the ancient practice of trepanation. This deserves a brief digression.
Trepanation involves drilling a shallow hole in the skull supposedly to improve cerebral blood circulation; in effect, it reverses the fusing of the cranial bones that happens in childhood
she trepanned herself in 1970, boring a small hole in the middle of her forehead with an electric drill. (She documented the procedure in a short but horrifying film called Heartbeat in the Brain.)
potential of psychedelics to improve brain function
But because frequent use of LSD can lead to tolerance, it’s entirely possible that for some people 150 micrograms merely “adds a certain sparkle to consciousness.”)
He had concluded from his research, and would tell anyone who asked, that alcohol was more dangerous than cannabis and that using Ecstasy was safer than riding a horse.
injection of psilocybin and then slide into an fMRI scanner to have his tripping brain imaged.
Carhart-Harris’s working hypothesis was that their brains would exhibit increases in activity, particularly in the emotion centers. “I thought it would look like the dreaming brain
Carhart-Harris got a surprise: “We were seeing decreases in blood flow”—blood flow being one of the proxies for brain activity that fMRI measures.
Carhart-Harris and his colleagues had discovered that psilocybin reduces brain activity, with the falloff concentrated in one particular brain network that at the time he knew little about: the default mode network.
Carhart-Harris began reading up on it. The default mode network, or DMN, was not known to brain science until 2001. That was when Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, described it in a landmark paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS. The network forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotion.*
Raichle had discovered the place where our minds go to wander—to daydream, ruminate, travel in time, reflect on ourselves, and worry. It may be through these very structures that the stream of our consciousness flows.
The default network stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attentional networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention; when one is active, the other goes quiet, and vice versa
the default mode is most active when we are engaged in higher-level “metacognitive” processes such as self-reflection, mental time travel, mental constructions (such as the self or ego), moral reasoning, and “theory of mind”—the ability to attribute mental states to others, as when we try to imagine “what it is like” to be someone else
As a whole, the default mode network exerts a top-down influence on other parts of the brain, many of which communicate with one another through its centrally located hub. Robin has described the DMN variously as the brain’s “orchestra conductor,” “corporate executive,” or “capital city,” charged with managing and “holding the whole system together.” And with keeping the brain’s unrulier tendencies in check.
of competing signals from one system do not interfere with those from another.
As mentioned, the default mode network appears to play a role in the creation of mental constructs or projections, the most important of which is the construct we call the self, or ego.
Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness. (In an often-cited paper titled “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” psychologists identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the default mode network.)
Shortly after Carhart-Harris published his results in a 2012 paper in PNAS (“Neural Correlates of the Psychedelic State as Determined by fMRI Studies with Psilocybin”), Judson Brewer, a researcher at Yale who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that his scans and Robin’s looked remarkably alike. The transcendence of self reported by expert meditators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away.
This sense of merging into some larger totality is of course one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience; our sense of individuality and separateness hinges on a bounded self and a clear demarcation between subject and object. But all that may be a mental construction, a kind of illusion—just as the Buddhists have been trying to tell us. The psychedelic experience of “non-duality” suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think. Carhart-Harris suspects that the loss of a clear distinction between subject and object might help explain another feature of the mystical experience: the fact that the insights it sponsors are felt to be objectively true—revealed truths rather than plain old insights.
The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network. This can be achieved any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation, as Robin Carhart-Harris and Judson Brewer have demonstrated, but perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises (like holotropic breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on.
IF THE DEFAULT MODE network is the conductor of the symphony of brain activity, you would expect its temporary absence from the stage to lead to an increase in dissonance and mental disorder—as indeed appears to happen during the psychedelic journey
Taken as a whole, the default mode network exerts an inhibitory influence on other parts of the brain, notably including the limbic regions involved in emotion and memory, in much the same way Freud conceived of the ego keeping the anarchic forces of the unconscious id in check.
Carhart-Harris hypothesizes that these and other centers of mental activity are “let off the leash” when the default mode leaves the stage, and in fact brain scans show an increase in activity (as reflected by increases in blood flow and oxygen consumption) in several other brain regions, including the limbic regions, under the influence of psychedelics. This disinhibition might explain why material that is unavailable to us during normal waking consciousness now floats to the surface of our awareness, including emotions and memories and, sometimes, long-buried childhood traumas. It is for this reason that some scientists and psychotherapists believe psychedelics can be profitably used to surface and explore the contents of the unconscious mind.
But the default mode network doesn’t only exert top-down control over material arising from within; it also helps regulate what is let into consciousness from the world outside. It operates as a kind of filter (or “reducing valve”) charged with admitting only that “measly trickle” of information required for us to get through the day. If not for the brain’s filtering mechanisms, the torrent of information the senses make available to our brains at any given moment might prove difficult to process—as indeed is sometimes the case during the psychedelic experience. “The question,” as David Nutt puts it, “is why the brain is ordinarily so constrained rather than so open?” The answer may be as simple as “efficiency.” Today most neuroscientists work under a paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. To form a perception of something out in the world, the brain takes in as little sensory information as it needs to make an educated guess. We are forever cutting to the chase, basically, and leaping to conclusions, relying on prior experience to inform current perception.
At least when it is working normally, the brain, presented with a few visual clues suggesting it is looking at a face, insists on seeing the face as a convex structure even when it is not because that’s the way faces usually are.
The model suggests that our perceptions of the world offer us not a literal transcription of reality but rather a seamless illusion woven from both the data of our senses and the models in our memories.
a kind of controlled hallucination. This raises a question: How is normal waking consciousness any different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination—such as dreams or psychotic delusions or psychedelic trips? In fact, all these states of consciousness are “imagined”: they’re mental constructs that weave together some news of the world with priors of various kinds. But in the case of normal waking consciousness, the handshake between the data of our senses and our preconceptions is especially firm. That’s because it is subject to a continual process of reality testing, as when you reach out to confirm the existence of the object in your visual field or, upon waking from a nightmare, consult your memory to see if you really did show up to teach a class without any clothes on. Unlike these other states of consciousness, ordinary waking consciousness has been optimized by natural selection to best facilitate our everyday survival.
“If it were possible to temporarily experience another person’s mental state, my guess is that it would feel more like a psychedelic state than a ‘normal’ state, because of its massive disparity with
whatever mental state is habitual with you.”
You quickly realize there is no single reality out there waiting to be faithfully and comprehensively transcribed. Our senses have evolved for a much narrower purpose and take in only what serves our needs as animals of a particular kind. The bee perceives a substantially different spectrum of light than we do; to look at the world through its eyes is to perceive ultraviolet markings on the petals of flowers (evolved to guide their landings like runway lights) that don’t exist for us. That example is at least a kind of seeing—a sense we happen to share with bees. But how do we even begin to conceive of the sense that allows bees to register (through the hairs on their legs) the electromagnetic fields that plants produce? (A weak charge indicates another bee has recently visited the flower; depleted of nectar, it’s probably not worth a stop.) Then there is the world according to an octopus! Imagine how differently reality presents itself to a brain that has been so radically decentralized, its intelligence distributed across eight arms so that each of them can taste, touch, and even make its own “decisions” without consulting headquarters.
By adulthood, the brain has gotten very good at observing and testing reality and developing reliable predictions about it that optimize our investments of energy (mental and otherwise) and therefore our chances of survival. Uncertainty is a complex brain’s biggest challenge, and predictive coding evolved to help us reduce it.
The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs,” published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2014. Here, Carhart-Harris attempts to lay out his grand synthesis of psychoanalysis and cognitive brain science. The question at its heart is, do we pay a price for the achievement of order and selfhood in the adult human mind? The paper concludes that we do. While suppressing entropy (in this context, a synonym for uncertainty) in the brain “serves to promote realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies,” at the same time this achievement tends to “constrain cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.”
Magical thinking is one way for human minds to reduce their uncertainty about the world, but it is less than optimal for the success of the species.
Better way to suppress uncertainty and entropy in the human brain emerged with the evolution of the default mode network, Carhart-Harris contends, a brain-regulating system that is absent or undeveloped in lower animals and young children. Along with the default mode network, “a coherent sense of self or ‘ego’ emerges” and, with that, the human capacity for self-reflection and reason. Magical thinking gives way to “a more reality-bound style of thinking, governed by the ego.” Borrowing from Freud, he calls this more highly evolved mode of cognition “secondary consciousness.” Secondary consciousness “pays deference to reality and diligently seeks to represent the world as precisely as possible” in order to minimize “surprise and uncertainty (i.e. entropy).”
The article offers an intriguing graphic depicting a “spectrum of cognitive states,” ranging from high-entropy mental states to low ones. At the high-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists psychedelic states; infant consciousness; early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking. At the low-entropy end of the spectrum, he lists narrow or rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive-compulsive disorder; depression; anesthesia; and, finally, coma.
Carhart-Harris suggests that the psychological “disorders” at the low-entropy end of the spectrum are not the result of a lack of order in the brain but rather stem from an excess of order. When the grooves of self-reflective thinking deepen and harden, the ego becomes overbearing. This is perhaps most clearly evident in depression, when the ego turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state of mind (sometimes called heavy self-consciousness or depressive realism) may be the result of a hyperactive default mode network, which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops of rumination that eventually close us off from the world outside. Huxley’s reducing valve contracts to zero. Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from a whole range of disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thought—including addiction, obsessions, and eating disorders as well as depression—stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest.”
So it may be that some brains could stand to have a little more entropy, not less. This is where psychedelics come in. By quieting the default mode network, these compounds can loosen the ego’s grip on the machinery of the mind, “lubricating” cognition where before it had been rusted stuck. “Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity,” Carhart-Harris writes. They increase the amount of entropy in the brain, with the result that the system reverts to a less constrained mode of cognition.*
It’s not just that one system drops away,” he says, “but that an older system reemerges.” That older system is primary consciousness, a mode of thinking in which the ego temporarily loses its dominion and the unconscious, now unregulated, “is brought into an observable space.” This, for Carhart-Harris, is the heuristic value of psychedelics to the study of the mind, though he sees therapeutic value as well.
It’s worth noting that Carhart-Harris does not romanticize psychedelics and has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” that they nourish in their acolytes—such as the idea that consciousness is “transpersonal,” a property of the universe rather than the human brain. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a “more primitive” mode of cognition. With Freud, he believes that the loss of self, and the sense of oneness, characteristic of the mystical experience—whether occasioned by chemistry or religion—return us to the psychological condition of the infant on its mother’s breast, a stage when it has yet to develop a sense of itself as a separate and bounded individual. For Carhart-Harris, the pinnacle of human development is the achievement of this differentiated self, or ego, and its imposition of order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by fears and wishes and given to various forms of magical thinking.
Too much entropy in the human brain may lead to atavistic thinking and, at the far end, madness, yet too little can cripple us as well. The grip of an overbearing ego can enforce a rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.
Was it that hippies gravitated to psychedelics, or do psychedelics create hippies
When the influence of the DMN declines, so does our sense of separateness from our environment.
“I am not separate from nature, but a part of nature”)
The various scanning technologies that the Imperial College lab has used to map the tripping brain show that the specialized neural networks of the brain—such as the default mode network and the visual processing system—each become disintegrated, while the brain as a whole becomes more integrated as new connections spring up among regions that ordinarily kept mainly to themselves or were linked only via the central hub of the DMN. Put another way, the various networks of the brain became less specialized.
Distinct networks became less distinct under the drug,” Carhart-Harris and his colleagues wrote, “implying that they communicate more openly,” with other brain networks. “The brain operates with greater flexibility and interconnectedness under hallucinogens.”
the usual lines of communications within the brain are radically reorganized when the default mode network goes off-line and the tide of entropy is allowed to rise.
But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin, as shown on the right, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.
Likewise, the establishment of new linkages across brain systems can give rise to synesthesia, as when sense information gets cross-wired so that colors become sounds or sounds become tactile. Or the new links give rise to hallucination, as when the contents of my memory transformed my visual perception of Mary into María Sabina, or the image of my face in the mirror into a vision of my grandfather.
The increase in entropy allows a thousand mental states to bloom, many of them bizarre and senseless, but some number of them revelatory, imaginative, and, at least potentially, transformative.
If problem solving is anything like evolutionary adaptation, the more possibilities the mind has at its disposal, the more creative its solutions will be.
If, as so many artists and scientists have testified, the psychedelic experience is an aid to creativity—to thinking “outside the box”—this model might help explain why that is the case. Maybe the problem with “the box” is that it is singular.
Franz Vollenweider has suggested that the psychedelic experience may facilitate “neuroplasticity”: it opens a window in which patterns of thought and behavior become more plastic and so easier to change. His model sounds like a chemically mediated form of cognitive behavioral therapy. But so far this is all highly speculative; as yet there has been little mapping of the brain before and after psychedelics to determine what, if anything, the experience changes in a lasting way.
Carhart-Harris argues in the entropy paper that even a temporary rewiring of the brain is potentially valuable, especially for people suffering from disorders characterized by mental rigidity. A high-dose psychedelic experience has the power to “shake the snow globe,” he says, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility—entropy—in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles.
entropy suggests the gradual deterioration of a hard-won order, the disintegration of a system over time. Certainly getting older feels like an entropic process—a gradual running down and disordering of the mind and body. But maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. Robin Carhart-Harris’s paper got me wondering if, at least for the mind, aging is really a process of declining entropy, the fading over time of what we should regard as a positive attribute of mental life.
With experience and time, it gets easier to cut to the chase and leap to conclusions—clichés that imply a kind of agility but that in fact may signify precisely the opposite: a petrifaction of thought. Think of it as predictive coding on the scale of life; the priors—and by now I’ve got millions of them—usually have my back, can be relied on to give me a decent enough answer, even if it isn’t a particularly fresh or imaginative one. A flattering term for this regime of good enough predictions is “wisdom.”
Reading Robin’s paper helped me better understand what I was looking for when I decided to explore psychedelics: to give my own snow globe a vigorous shaking, see if I could renovate my everyday mental life by introducing a greater measure of entropy, and uncertainty, into it.
Judson Brewer, the neuroscientist who studies meditation, has found that a felt sense of expansion in consciousness correlates with a drop in activity in one particular node of the default mode network—the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is associated with self-referential processing
Baby consciousness is so different from adult consciousness as to constitute a mental country of its own, one from which we are expelled sometime early in adolescence. Is there a way back in?
Gopnik proposes we regard the mind of the young child as another kind of “altered state,” and in a number of respects it is a strikingly similar one.
Gopnik asks us to think about child consciousness in terms of not what’s missing from it or undeveloped but rather what is uniquely and wonderfully present—qualities that she believes psychedelics can help us to better appreciate and, possibly, reexperience.
In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik draws a useful distinction between the “spotlight consciousness” of adults and the “lantern consciousness” of young children. The first mode gives adults the ability to narrowly focus attention on a goal. (In his own remarks, Carhart-Harris called this “ego consciousness” or “consciousness with a point.”) In the second mode—lantern consciousness—attention is more widely diffused, allowing the child to take in information from virtually anywhere in her field of awareness, which is quite wide, wider than that of most adults.
To borrow Judson Brewer’s terms, lantern consciousness is expansive, spotlight consciousness narrow, or contracted. The adult brain directs the spotlight of its attention where it will and then relies on predictive coding to make sense of what it perceives. This is not at all the child’s approach, Gopnik has discovered. Being inexperienced in the way of the world, the mind of the young child has comparatively few priors, or preconceptions, to guide her perceptions down the predictable tracks. Instead, the child approaches reality with the astonishment of an adult on psychedelics.
In teaching computers how to learn and solve problems, AI designers speak in terms of “high temperature” and “low temperature” searches for the answers to questions. A low-temperature search (so-called because it requires less energy) involves reaching for the most probable or nearest-to-hand answer, like the one that worked for a similar problem in the past. Low-temperature searches succeed more often than not. A high-temperature search requires more energy because it involves reaching for less likely but possibly more ingenious and creative answers—those found outside the box of preconception. Drawing on its wealth of experience, the adult mind performs low-temperature searches most of the time.
Gopnik believes that both the young child (five and under) and the adult on a psychedelic have a stronger predilection for the high-temperature search; in their quest to make sense of things, their minds explore not just the nearby and most likely but “the entire space of possibilities.”
High-temperature searches can yield answers that are more magical than realistic
Gopnik has tested this hypothesis on children in her lab and has found that there are learning problems that four-year-olds are better at solving than adults.
they’ll conduct lots of high-temperature searches, testing the most far-out hypotheses. “Children are better learners than adults in many cases when the solutions are nonobvious”
I think of childhood as the R&D stage of the species, concerned exclusively with learning and exploring. We adults are production and marketing.”
Children don’t invent these new tools, they don’t create the new environment, but in every generation they build the kind of brain that can best thrive in it. Childhood is the species’ ways of injecting noise into the system of cultural evolution.” “Noise,” of course, is in this context another word for “entropy.”
The child’s brain is extremely plastic, good for learning, not accomplishing”—better for “exploring rather than exploiting.” It also has a great many more neural connections than the adult brain.
But as we reach adolescence, most of those connections get pruned, so that the “human brain becomes a lean, mean acting machine.” A key element of that developmental process is the suppression of entropy, with all of its implications, both good and bad. The system cools, and hot searches become the exception rather than the rule. The default mode network comes online.
Consciousness narrows as we get older,” Gopnik says. “Adults have congealed in their beliefs and are hard to shift,” she has written, whereas “children are more fluid and consequently more willing to entertain new ideas.
“The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”
There are a range of difficulties and pathologies in adults, like depression, that are connected with the phenomenology of rumination and an excessively narrow, ego-based focus,” Gopnik says. “You get stuck on the same thing, you can’t escape, you become obsessive, perhaps addicted. It seems plausible to me that the psychedelic experience could help us get out of those states, create an opportunity in which the old stories of who we are might be rewritten.”
CHAPTER SIX: THE TRIP TREATMENT
spiritual knickknacks—a large glazed ceramic mushroom, a Buddha, a crystal
psychedelics (usually psilocybin rather than LSD, because, as Ross explained, it “carries none of the political baggage of those three letters”) could be used to lift depression and break addictions—to alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco.
Charles Grob, the UCLA psychiatrist whose 2011 pilot study of psilocybin for cancer anxiety cleared the path for the NYU and Hopkins trials, acknowledges that “in a lot of ways we are simply picking up the torch from earlier generations of researchers who had to put it down because of cultural pressures.
To cite one obvious example, conventional drug trials of psychedelics are difficult if not impossible to blind: most participants can tell whether they’ve received psilocybin or a placebo, and so can their guides. Also, in testing these drugs, how can researchers hope to tease out the chemical’s effect from the critical influence of set and setting? Western science and modern drug testing depend on the ability to isolate a single variable, but it isn’t clear that the effects of a psychedelic drug can ever be isolated, whether from the context in which it is administered, the presence of the therapists involved, or the volunteer’s expectations. Any of these factors can muddy the waters of causality.
Charles Grob well appreciates the challenge but is also refreshingly unapologetic about it: he describes psychedelic therapy as a form of “applied mysticism”
We must also pay heed to the examples provided us by such successful applications of the shamanic paradigm.” Under that paradigm, the shaman/therapist carefully orchestrates “extrapharmacological variables” such as set and setting in order to put the “hyper-suggestible properties” of these medicines to best use. This is precisely where psychedelic therapy seems to be operating: on a frontier between spirituality and science that is as provocative as it is uncomfortable.
Pharmaceutical companies are no longer investing in the development of so-called CNS drugs—medicines targeted at the central nervous system
yet only about half of the people who take their lives have ever received mental health treatment.
People were journeying to early parts of their lives and coming back with a profound new sense of things, new priorities
“existential distress.” Existential distress is what psychologists call the complex of depression, anxiety, and fear common in people confronting a terminal diagnosis
“flight instructions” written by the Hopkins researcher Bill Richards.
Bossis suggested that Patrick use the phrase “Trust and let go” as a kind of mantra for his journey. Go wherever it takes you, he advised: “Climb staircases, open doors, explore paths, fly over
offered is always to move toward, rather than try to flee, anything truly threatening or monstrous you encounter—look it straight in the eyes. “Dig in your heels and ask, ‘What are you doing in my mind?’ Or, ‘What can I learn from you?’”
In 1965, Sidney Cohen wrote an essay for Harper’s (“LSD and the Anguish of Dying”) exploring the potential of psychedelics to “alter the experience of dying
Cohen wrote, “but we live and die imprisoned within ourselves.”
The idea was to use psychedelics to escape the prison of self. “We wanted to provide a brief, lucid interval of complete egolessness to demonstrate that personal intactness was not absolutely necessary, and that perhaps there was something ‘out there’”—something greater than our individual selves that might survive our demise
In 1972, Stanislav Grof and Bill Richards, who were working together at Spring Grove, wrote that LSD gave patients an experience “of cosmic unity” such that death, “instead of being seen as the absolute end of everything and a step into nothingness, appears suddenly as a transition into another type of existence . . . The idea of possible continuity of consciousness beyond physical death becomes much more plausible than the opposite.”
Patrick was asked to state his intention, which he said was to learn to cope better with the anxiety and depression he felt about his cancer and to work on what he called his “regret in life.” He placed a few photographs around the room, of himself and Lisa on their wedding day and of their dog, Arlo.
Their promise is that if you surrender to whatever happens (“trust, let go, and be open” or “relax and float downstream”), whatever at first might seem terrifying will soon morph into something else, and likely something pleasant, even blissful.
“Birth and death is a lot of work,”
I mentioned that everyone deserved to have this experience . . . that if everyone did, no one could ever do harm to another again . . . wars would be impossible to wage.
From here on, love was the only consideration . . . It was and is the only purpose. Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light . . . and it vibrated . . . I could feel my physical body trying to vibrate in unity with the cosmos . . . and, frustratingly, I felt like a guy who couldn’t dance . . . but the universe accepted it. The sheer joy . . . the bliss . . . the nirvana . . . was indescribable.
Aloud, he said, “Never had an orgasm of the soul before.” The music loomed large in the experience: “I was learning a song and the song was simple . . . it was one note . . . C . . . it was the vibration of the universe . . . a collection of everything that ever existed . . . all together equaling God.”
Patrick then described an epiphany having to do with simplicity. He was thinking about politics and food, music and architecture, and—his field—television news, which he realized was, like so much else, “over-produced. We put too many notes in a song . . . too many ingredients in our recipes . . . too many flourishes in the clothes we wear, the houses we live in . . . it all seemed so pointless when really all we needed to do was focus on the love.”
“I was being told (without words) not to worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things . . . simply an imperfection of your humanity and that the more important matter . . . the real work to be done is before you. Again, love.”
He told her he “had touched the face of God.”
EVERY PSYCHEDELIC JOURNEY is different, yet a few common themes seem to recur in the journeys of those struggling with cancer. Many of the cancer patients I interviewed described an experience of either giving birth or being reborn, though none quite as intense as Patrick’s. Many also described an encounter with their cancer (or their fear of it) that had the effect of shrinking its power over them.
Now I am aware that there is a whole other ‘reality,’” one NYU volunteer told a researcher a few months after her journey. “Compared to other people, it is like I know another language.”
Bossis’s notes indicate that Patrick interpreted his journey as “pretty clearly a window . . . [on] a kind of afterlife, something beyond this physical body.” He spoke of “the plane of existence of love” as “infinite.”
He was meditating regularly, felt he had become better able to live in the present, and “described loving [his] wife even more.”
Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by “its fruits”: Does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
David Nichols said, “If it gives them peace, if it helps people to die peacefully with their friends and their family at their side, I don’t care if it’s real or an illusion.”
In both the NYU and the Hopkins trials, some 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin session.
The dissolution of the sense of self, for example, can be understood in either psychological or neurobiological terms (as possibly the disintegration of the default mode network) and may explain many of the benefits people experienced during their journeys without resort to any spiritual conception of “oneness.” Likewise, the sense of “sacredness” that classically accompanies the mystical experience can be understood in more secular terms as simply a heightened sense of meaning or purpose.
A few key themes emerged. All of the patients interviewed described powerful feelings of connection to loved ones (“relational embeddedness” is the term the authors used) and, more generally, a shift “from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness.” In most cases, this shift was accompanied by a repertoire of powerful emotions, including “exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love.” Difficult passages during the journey were typically followed by positive feelings of surrender and acceptance (even of their cancers) as people’s fears fell away.
Jeffrey Guss, a coauthor on the paper and a psychiatrist, interprets what happens during the session in terms of the psilocybin’s “egolytic” effects—the drug’s ability to either silence or at least muffle the voice of the ego. In his view, which is informed by his psychoanalytic training, the ego is a mental construct that performs certain functions on behalf of the self. Chief among these are maintaining the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious realms of the mind and the
Existential distress at the end of life bears many of the hallmarks of a hyperactive default network, including obsessive self-reflection and an inability to jump the deepening grooves of negative thinking. The ego, faced with the prospect of its own extinction, turns inward and becomes hypervigilant, withdrawing its investment in the world and other people. The cancer patients I interviewed spoke of feeling closed off from loved ones, from the world, and from the full range of emotions; they felt, as one put it, “existentially alone.”
By temporarily disabling the ego, psilocybin seems to open a new field of psychological possibility, symbolized by the death and rebirth reported by many of the patients I interviewed. At first, the falling away of the self feels threatening, but if one can let go and surrender, powerful and usually positive emotions flow in—along with formerly inaccessible memories and sense impressions and meanings. No longer defended by the ego, the gate between self and other—Huxley’s reducing valve—is thrown wide open. And what comes through that opening for many people, in a great flood, is love. Love for specific individuals, yes, but also, as Patrick Mettes came to feel (to know!), love for everyone and everything—love as the meaning and purpose of life, the key to the universe, and the ultimate truth.
So it may be that the loss of self leads to a gain in meaning
In preparing volunteers for their journeys, Jeffrey Guss speaks explicitly about the acquisition of meaning, telling his patients “that the medicine will show you hidden or unknown shadow parts of yourself; that you will gain insight into yourself, and come to learn about the meaning of life and existence.” (He also tells them they may have a mystical or transcendent experience but carefully refrains from defining it.) “As a result of this molecule being in your body, you’ll understand more about yourself and life and the universe.” And more often than not this happens. Replace the science-y word “molecule” with “sacred mushroom” or “plant teacher,” and you have the incantations of a shaman at the start of a ceremonial healing.
But however it works, and whatever vocabulary we use to explain it, this seems to me the great gift of the psychedelic journey, especially to the dying: its power to imbue everything in our field of experience with a heightened sense of purpose and consequence.
He had a very conscious death.”
a mystical experience, specifically a savikalpa samadhi, in which the ego vanishes when confronted with the immensity of the universe during the course of a meditation on an object—in this case, planet Earth.
Smoking became irrelevant, so I stopped.”
Six months after their psychedelic sessions, 80 percent of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent; at the one-year mark, that figure had fallen to 67 percent, which is still a better rate of success than the best treatment now available. (A much larger randomized study, comparing the effectiveness of psilocybin therapy with the nicotine patch, is currently under way.) As in the cancer-anxiety studies, the volunteers who had the most complete mystical experiences had the best outcomes; they were, like Charles Bessant, able to quit smoking.
Right now, I’m standing here in my garden, and the light is coming through the canopy of leaves. For me to be able to stand here in the beauty of this light, talking to you, it’s only because my eyes are open to see it. If you don’t stop to look, you’ll never see it. It’s the statement of an obvious thing, I know, but to feel it, to look and be amazed by this light” is a gift he attributes to his session, which gave him “a feeling of connectedness to everything.”
Johnson believes the value of psilocybin for the addict is in the new perspective—at once obvious and profound—that it opens onto one’s life and its habits. “Addiction is a story we get stuck in, a story that gets reinforced every time we try and fail to quit: ‘I’m a smoker and I’m powerless to stop.’ The journey allows them to get some distance and see the bigger picture and to see the short-term pleasures of smoking in the larger, longer-term context of their lives.”
Perhaps this is one of the things psychedelics do: relax the brain’s inhibition on visualizing our thoughts, thereby rendering them more authoritative, memorable, and sticky.
Matt Johnson believes that psychedelics can be used to change all sorts of behaviors, not just addiction. The key, in his view, is their power to occasion a sufficiently dramatic experience to “dope-slap people out of their story. It’s literally a reboot of the system—a biological control-alt-delete. Psychedelics open a window of mental flexibility in which people can let go of the mental models we use to organize reality.”
In his view, the most important such model is the self, or ego, which a high-dose psychedelic experience temporarily dissolves. He speaks of “our addiction to a pattern of thinking with the self at the center of it.” This underlying addiction to a pattern of thinking, or cognitive style, links the addict to the depressive and to the cancer patient obsessed with death or recurrence.
We’re trapped in a story that sees ourselves as independent, isolated agents acting in the world. But that self is an illusion. It can be a useful illusion, when you’re swinging through the trees or escaping from a cheetah or trying to do your taxes. But at the systems level, there is no truth to it. You can take any number of more accurate perspectives: that we’re a swarm of genes, vehicles for passing on DNA; that we’re social creatures through and through, unable to survive alone; that we’re organisms in an ecosystem, linked together on this planet floating in the middle of nowhere. Wherever you look, you see that the level of interconnectedness is truly amazing, and yet we insist on thinking of ourselves as individual agents.” Albert Einstein called the modern human’s sense of separateness “a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”*
Dying, depression, obsession, eating disorders – all are exacerbated by the tyranny of an ego and the fixed narratives it constructs about our relationship to the world. By temporarily overturning that tyranny and throwing our minds into an unusually plastic state (Robin Carhart-Harris would call it a state of heightened entropy), psychedelics, with the help of a good therapist, give us an opportunity to propose some new, more constructive stories about the self and its relationship to the world, stories that just might stick.
Alcoholism can be understood as a spiritual disorder,” Ross told me the first time we met, in the treatment room at NYU. “Over time you lose your connection to everything but this compound.
“I saw Jesus on the cross,” she recalled. “It was just his head and shoulders, and it was like I was a little kid in a tiny helicopter circling around his head. But he was on the cross. And he just sort of gathered me up in his hands, you know, the way you would comfort a small child. I felt such a great weight lift from my shoulders, felt very much at peace. It was a beautiful experience.”
The teaching of the experience, she felt, was self-acceptance. “I spend less time thinking about people who have a better life than me. I realize I’m not a bad person; I’m a person who’s had a lot of bad things happen. Jesus might have been trying to tell me it was okay, that these things happen. He was trying to comfort me.”
the FDA staff surprised the researchers by asking them to expand their focus and ambition: to test whether psilocybin could be used to treat the much larger and more pressing problem of depression in the general population. As the regulators saw it, the data contained a strong enough “signal” that psilocybin could relieve depression; it would be a shame not to test the proposition, given the enormity of the need and the limitations of the therapies now available
Rosalind Watts was a young clinical psychologist working for the National Health Service when she read an article about psychedelic therapy in the New Yorker.* The idea that you might actually be able to cure mental illness rather than just manage its symptoms inspired her to write to Robin Carhart-Harris, who hired her to help out with the depression study, the lab’s first foray into clinical research
Watts’s interviews uncovered two “master” themes. The first was that the volunteers depicted their depression foremost as a state of “disconnection,” whether from other people, their earlier selves, their senses and feelings, their core beliefs and spiritual values, or nature. Several referred to living in “a mental prison,” others to being “stuck” in endless circles of rumination they likened to mental “gridlock.” I was reminded of Carhart-Harris’s hypothesis that depression might be the result of an overactive default mode network—the site in the brain where rumination appears to take place.
“It was like when you defrag the hard drive on your computer . . . I thought, ‘My brain is being defragged, how brilliant is that!’”
The second master theme was a new access to difficult emotions, emotions that depression often blunts or closes down completely. Watts hypothesizes that the depressed patient’s incessant rumination constricts his or her emotional repertoire. In other cases, the depressive keeps emotions at bay because it is too painful to experience them.
More than half of the Imperial volunteers saw the clouds of their depression eventually return, so it seems likely that psychedelic therapy for depression, should it prove useful and be approved, will not be a onetime intervention. But even the temporary respite the volunteers regarded as precious, because it reminded them there was another way to be that was worth working to recapture. Like electroconvulsive therapy for depression, which it in some ways resembles, psychedelic therapy is a shock to the system—a “reboot” or “defragging”—that may need to be repeated every so often. (Assuming the treatment works as well when repeated.) But the potential of the therapy has regulators and researchers and much of the mental health community feeling hopeful.
None of these psychedelic therapies have yet proven themselves to work in large populations; what successes have been reported should be taken as promising signals standing out from the noise of data, rather than as definitive proofs of cure. Yet the fact that psychedelics have produced such a signal across a range of indications can be interpreted in a more positive light. When a single remedy is prescribed for a great many illnesses, to paraphrase Chekhov, it could mean those illnesses are more alike than we’re accustomed to think.
It could be as straightforward as the notion of a “mental reboot”—Matt Johnson’s biological control-alt-delete key—that jolts the brain out of destructive patterns (such as Kessler’s “capture”), affording an opportunity for new patterns to take root. It could be that, as Franz Vollenweider has hypothesized, psychedelics enhance neuroplasticity. The myriad new connections that spring up in the brain during the psychedelic experience, as mapped by the neuroimaging done at Imperial College, and the disintegration of well-traveled old connections, may serve simply to “shake the snow globe,” in Robin Carhart-Harris’s phrase, a predicate for establishing new pathways.
Mendel Kaelen, a Dutch postdoc in the Imperial lab, proposes a more extended snow metaphor: “Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill, a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into the preexisting trails, almost like a magnet.” Those main trails represent the most well-traveled neural connections in your brain, many of them passing through the default mode network. “In time, it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.
“Think of psychedelics as temporarily flattening the snow. The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.” When the snow is freshest, the mind is most impressionable, and the slightest nudge—whether from a song or an intention or a therapist’s suggestion—can powerfully influence its future course.
Robin Carhart-Harris’s theory of the entropic brain represents a promising elaboration on this general idea, and a first stab at a unified theory of mental illness that helps explain all three of the disorders we’ve examined in these pages. A happy brain is a supple and flexible brain, he believes; depression, anxiety, obsession, and the cravings of addiction are how it feels to have a brain that has become excessively rigid or fixed in its pathways and linkages—a brain with more order than is good for it. On the spectrum he lays out (in his entropic brain article) ranging from excessive order to excessive entropy, depression, addiction, and disorders of obsession all fall on the too-much-order end. (Psychosis is on the entropy end of the spectrum, which is why it probably doesn’t respond to psychedelic therapy.)
The therapeutic value of psychedelics, in Carhart-Harris’s view, lies in their ability to temporarily elevate entropy in the inflexible brain, jolting the system out of its default patterns
So many of the volunteers I spoke to, whether among the dying, the addicted, or the depressed, described feeling mentally “stuck,” captured in ruminative loops they felt powerless to break. They talked about “prisons of the self,” spirals of obsessive introspection that wall them off from other people, nature, their earlier selves, and the present moment. All these thoughts and feelings may be the products of an overactive default mode network, that tightly linked set of brain structures implicated in rumination, self-referential thought, and metacognition—thinking about thinking. It stands to reason that by quieting the brain network responsible for thinking about ourselves, and thinking about thinking about ourselves, we might be able to jump that track, or erase it from the snow.
The default mode network appears to be the seat not only of the ego, or self, but of the mental faculty of time travel as well. The two are of course closely related: without the ability to remember our past and imagine a future, the notion of a coherent self could hardly be said to exist; we define ourselves with reference to our personal history and future objectives. (As meditators eventually discover, if we can manage to stop thinking about the past or future and sink into the present, the self seems to disappear.) Mental time travel is constantly taking us off the frontier of the present moment. This can be highly adaptive; it allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. But when time travel turns obsessive, it fosters the backward-looking gaze of depression and the forward pitch of anxiety. Addiction, too, seems to involve uncontrollable time travel. The addict uses his habit to organize time: When was the last hit, and when can I get the next?
Another type of mental activity that neuroimaging has located in the DMN (and specifically in the posterior cingulate cortex) is the work performed by the so-called autobiographical or experiential self: the mental operation responsible for the narratives that link our first person to the world, and so help define us. “This is who I am.” “I don’t deserve to be loved.” “I’m the kind of person without the willpower to break this addiction.” Getting overly attached to these narratives, taking them as fixed truths about ourselves rather than as stories subject to revision, contributes mightily to addiction, depression, and anxiety. Psychedelic therapy seems to weaken the grip of these narratives, perhaps by temporarily disintegrating the parts of the default mode network where they operate.
“The ego keeps us in our grooves,” as Matt Johnson puts it. For better and, sometimes, for worse. For occasionally the ego can become tyrannical and turn its formidable powers on the rest of us.* Perhaps this is the link between the various forms of mental illness that psychedelic therapy seems to help most: all involve a disordered ego—overbearing, punishing, or misdirected
David Foster Wallace asked his audience to “think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth,” he said. “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”
Consider the case of the mystical experience: the sense of transcendence, sacredness, unitive consciousness, infinitude, and blissfulness people report can all be explained as what it can feel like to a mind when its sense of being, or having, a separate self is suddenly no more.
Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently. “The psychedelic journey may not give you what you want,” as more than one guide memorably warned me, “but it will give you what you need.”
Brewer invited me to visit his lab at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school in Worcester to run some experiments on my own default mode network.
The posterior cingulate cortex is a centrally located node within the default mode network involved in self-referential mental processes
The PCC is believed to be the locus of the experiential or narrative self; it appears to generate the narratives that link what happens to us to our abiding sense of who we are. Brewer believes that this particular operation, when it goes awry, is at the root of several forms of mental suffering, including addiction.
As Brewer explains it, activity in the PCC is correlated not so much with our thoughts and feelings as with “how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.” It is where we get “caught up in the push and pull of our experience.” (This has particular relevance for the addict: “It’s one thing to have cravings,” as Brewer points out, “but quite another to get caught up in your cravings.”)
A brief daily meditation had become a way for me to stay in touch with the kind of thinking I’d done on psychedelics. I discovered my trips had made it easier for me to drop into a mentally quiet place, something that in the past had always eluded me. So I closed my eyes and began to follow my breath. I had never tried to meditate in front of other people, and it felt awkward, but when Brewer put the graph up on the screen, I could see that I had succeeded in quieting my PCC—not by a lot, but most of the bars dipped below baseline. Yet the graph was somewhat jagged, with several bars leaping above baseline
He sounded excited by the idea that the mere recollection of a psychedelic experience might somehow replicate what happens in the brain during the real thing.
EPILOGUE: In Praise of Neural Diversity
Here was Paul Summergrad, MD, the former head of the American Psychiatric Association, seated next to Tom Insel, MD, the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health. The panel was organized and moderated by George Goldsmith, an American entrepreneur and health industry consultant based in London
It was clear to everyone in the standing-room crowd exactly what the three men on the panel represented: the recognition of psychedelic therapy by the mental health establishment
He suggested that psychedelics would probably need to be rebranded in the public mind and that it would be essential to steer clear of anything that smacked of “recreational use.”
It’s not at all clear what the business model might be. Yet.
George Goldsmith envisions a network of psychedelic treatment centers, facilities in attractive natural settings where patients will go for their guided sessions. He has formed a company called Compass Pathways to build these centers in the belief they can offer a treatment for a range of mental illnesses sufficiently effective and economical that Europe’s national health services will reimburse for them
Katherine MacLean, the former Hopkins researcher who wrote the landmark paper on openness, hopes someday to establish a “psychedelic hospice,” a retreat center somewhere out in nature where not only the dying but their loved ones can use psychedelics to help them let go—the patient and the loved ones both.
in 2016, the California Institute of Integral Studies graduated its first class of forty-two psychedelic therapists.
“That was a very different time. People wouldn’t even talk about cancer or death then. Women were tranquilized to give birth; men weren’t allowed in the delivery room! Yoga and meditation were totally weird. Now mindfulness is mainstream and everyone does yoga, and there are birthing centers and hospices all over. We’ve integrated all these things into our culture. And now I think we’re ready to integrate psychedelics.”
For me, working one-on-one with an experienced guide in a safe place removed from my everyday life turned out to be the ideal way to explore psychedelics. Yet there are other ways to structure the psychedelic journey—to provide a safe container for its potentially overwhelming energies. Ayahuasca and peyote are typically used in a group, with the leader, often but not necessarily a shaman, acting in a supervisory role and helping people to navigate and interpret their experiences.
Not only did my guides create a setting in which I felt safe enough to surrender to the psychedelic experience, but they also helped me to make sense of it afterward.
I don’t mean to suggest I have achieved this state of ego-transcending awareness, only tasted it. These experiences don’t last, or at least they didn’t for me. After each of my psychedelic sessions came a period of several weeks in which I felt noticeably different—more present to the moment, much less inclined to dwell on what’s next. I was also notably more emotional and surprised myself on several occasions by how little it took to make me tear up or smile. I found myself thinking about things like death and time and infinity, but less in angst than in wonder.
This was a way of being I treasured, but, alas, every time it eventually faded. It’s difficult not to slip back into the familiar grooves of mental habit; they are so well worn; the tidal pull of what the Buddhists call our “habit energies” is difficult to withstand. Add to this the expectations of other people, which subtly enforce a certain way of being yourself, no matter how much you might want to attempt another. After a month or so, it was pretty much back to baseline.
“the folds of my gray flannel trousers”: Huxley, Doors of Perception, 33.
“We were amazed”: Fadiman, Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, 185.
“If we learned one thing”: Lattin, Harvard Psychedelic Club, 74.
“using hallucinogens for seductions”: Weil, “Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal.”
“Standing on the bare ground”: Emerson, Nature, 13.
“Swiftly arose and spread around me”: Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 29.
“All at once, as it were out of the intensity”: Tennysons, “Luminous Sleep.”
The bee perceives a substantially different spectrum: Srinivasan, “Honey Bees as a Model for Vision, Perception, and Cognition”; Dyer et al., “Seeing in Colour.”
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Boston: James Munroe, 1836.
Fadiman, James. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys.Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2011.
Grof, Stanislav. LSD: Doorway to the Numinous: The Groundbreaking Psychedelic Research into Realms of the Human Unconscious. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. EBook. Project Gutenberg, 2014.
Decade of the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Lattin, Don. The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
Tennyson, Alfred. “Luminous Sleep.” The Spectator, Aug. 1, 1903.
Weil, Andrew T. “The Strange Case of the Harvard Drug Scandal.” Look, Nov. 1963.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. New York: Penguin, 1986.