New research on psychedelic drugs
I am fascinated by the resurgence of interest and research in psychedelic drugs for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and addiction. Michael Polan, the author of the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” has recently published a book on this research titled “How to change your mind”.
Psychiatric research in the area of psychedelic drugs, restarted in the 1990’s, focused on the administration of psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical that is derived from “magic mushrooms”, to volunteers with a variety of problems that were impacting their mood or their behavior. The results have been startling and hopeful.
Indeed, there was a vast body of research on these drugs in the 1960’s and 1970’s, using both psilocybin and LSD which demonstrated similarly interesting results. But with the emergence of the use of these drugs in non-research settings, the cultural upheaval and experimentation with drugs in the 60’s, and the antics of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist, and counter-culture hero, these chemicals were banned. In the 1970’s, Richard Nixon called Dr. Leary “the most dangerous person in American”. Research came to an abrupt end.
Like many young people in the 1960’s, I experimented with these drugs, including LSD and Mescaline, the chemical in Peyote, a cactus. I can’t say that they had any significant impact on my life. I thought they were interesting. But I was cautious too. I saw too many of my peers get lost in substance abuse. I didn’t want to go there.
This new research begins where scientific research in the 60’s and 70’s left off, except with new technology in neuroscience. These sessions are very controlled—there are administered under clinical supervision, in a very specific setting, to minimize the possibility of negative experiences. Researchers have determined that the setting is an extremely important factor for the experience that subjects have. The participants listen to music with an eye mask on to facilitate an inner experience. They are instructed to “explore with interest” any experience they have, including ones that might be fearful.
Many participants in these studies have had life-changing experiences that fundamentally altered their view of themselves and their lives. What these chemicals seem to do is to offer a transformative inner experience, where the individual’s sense of self fundamentally changes.
Depression and anxiety are often characterized by negative ways of thinking that tend to feed on itself. The individual gets stuck in a distorted way of looking at themselves and the world around them. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on helping individuals change this pattern of thought. But preliminary data from these studies suggest that these chemicals may disrupt this pattern of thinking more dramatically and potentially more quickly. Depression and anxiety are painful conditions. Medications which may speed recovery are well worth investigating, despite their past reputation.
Interestingly, adults who have been long-term meditators report similar transformative experiences, albeit over a much longer period of time. I have some personal experience with this—having meditated regularly for over 35 years. My experience of myself has incrementally changed over these years, and I do attribute some of this variation from my meditation practice. Even my wife, who has known me for 44 years, agrees!
This is not to say that meditation or psychedelics are the only means for personal transformation and healing. Traditional psychiatric medications, therapy, and other evidence-based approaches are helpful in managing depression and anxiety.
While this new research is interesting and potentially exciting, it’s not a cause to run off and take one of these psychedelics! These sessions, using psilocybin, are in a highly controlled environment. This makes a huge difference in the experience of the subjects.
Scientists are combining their knowledge of neuroscience, the use of substances that appear in nature, their understanding of our minds, and a willingness to explore new dimensions of human experience to find new answers to age-old problems.