A good trip

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A good trip

Not magic but medicine. Photo by Getty

Researchers are giving psychedelics to cancer patients to help alleviate their despair — and it’s working

Linda Marsa is a contributing editor for Discover magazine, a teacher on the writer’s programme at UCLA, and the author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health (2013).

2600 2,600 words
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On a bone-chilling morning in February last year, Nick Fernandez bundled up and took the subway from his Manhattan apartment to the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, which is located in an art deco-style building on the Lower East Side. A 27-year-old graduate student in psychology with dark, wavy hair and delicate, bird-like features, Fernandez was excited and nervous. He had eaten a light breakfast consisting of a bagel and industrial-strength coffee in preparation for another journey he was about to take. Fernandez had signed up to be a subject in a New York University study into the use of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, to relieve mental anguish in people with terminal or recurrent cancer.

Fernandez hoped that the drug would lift the shroud of melancholy and free-floating anxiety that had enveloped him ever since he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004 during his senior year in high school. Two and a half years of almost continuous chemotherapy vanquished the disease, but left him drained and traumatised. The former soccer star dropped more than 50 lbs from an already lean frame. ‘It was pretty brutal and forces you to grow up fast,’ said Fernandez, who became intensely interested in spiritual philosophy during this period, and went on to dabble in psychedelics in college. For years afterward, every sneeze and sniffle, every day that he felt tired or out of sorts, filled him with an unshakeable dread that the cancer had returned. When he heard the study mentioned on a radio show, he immediately signed up.

Jeffrey Guss and Erin Zerbo, the two NYU psychiatrists who would quietly monitor Fernandez’s progress throughout the day, greeted him when he arrived. After they took his vital signs, Fernandez changed into sweat pants and a shirt, and settled into a converted dental exam room that had been transformed into a hippie-style sanctum: tricked out with fresh flowers and fruits, a comfy sofa littered with plush pillows, Buddhist and shamanistic totems, and a high-tech sound system. Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU and the lead investigator for the study, made a brief appearance in the trip room. He was holding a glass vial that had been retrieved earlier that morning from a massive safe located inside a high-security storage room. It contained a single white capsule, and no one could be sure if it was a placebo – a dummy pill – or a 30 milligram dose of synthesised psilocybin.

‘Good luck,’ Ross said, handing Fernandez the pill, which he washed down with water that he drank from a large antique chalice. Then he slipped on the headphones, put on a face mask to block out the light, lay down on the couch and waited.

About an hour later, as the drug began to take effect, the blackness inside his head turned into an onrushing cascade of white dots that swiftly morphed into a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns – gears, stars, triangles, trapezoids – in all the colours of the rainbow. He started to hear an insistent voice in his head, telling him over and over: ‘I’m going to show you what I can do.’ Fernandez slowly suspended his skepticism and reluctantly surrendered to the experience. What he perceived to be his spirit guide took him on a Marley’s ghost-style journey, with stops at his own funeral, a hellish place littered with skulls that smelled of death where he was in excruciating pain. Once his agony reached an almost unbearable crescendo, his spirit guide catapulted him through hundreds of light years of space, allowing him to escape the pain. ‘I went into this mystical state, and this intense visual palate took over my mind,’ Fernandez said.

He suddenly found himself in Grand Central Terminal, which was filled with hundreds of people he knew dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns, dancing happily to symphonic music. He spied his girlfriend, Claire, across the dance floor. They walked towards each other and embraced, which filled him with intense feelings of bliss and joy. Soon he was again catapulted, down into the sewers of the city, and then to the top of the Empire State Building where he serenely surveyed the city just as dawn broke its rosy glow over the skyscrapers. The spirit guide took him from there to a cave in the forest where he went shopping for another body, but the only body to be had was his own. This realisation gave Fernandez a new appreciation of his body, and all it had been through: the workouts, the swims, the bike rides, the sickness when the cancer cells had taken over, and the chemotherapy drugs that had destroyed them. ‘For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving,’ he said. ‘Something inside me snapped and I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realise all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.’

The relaxed treatment rooms at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, New York University College of Dentistry. Photo by Bloomberg/Getty The relaxed treatment rooms at the Bluestone Center for Clinical Research, New York University College of Dentistry. Photo by Bloomberg/Getty

What happened to Fernandez in the study is fairly typical, and consistent with a century’s worth of literature, scientific and otherwise, on the use of psychedelics. ‘Patients would tell me that they’ll never be able to get out from under the rock that hangs over them and that their psyche is always filled with the fact they have cancer,’ Stephen Ross said. ‘But those feelings evaporated under the influence of psilocybin. They almost uniformly experienced a dramatic reduction in existential anxiety and depression, and an increased acceptance of the cancer, and the changes lasted a year or more and in some cases were permanent.’

The NYU study will ultimately encompass 32 volunteers, making it the largest study of psychedelic medicine in more than 40 years. Test results haven’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but the interim data analysis of their first 25 patients was encouraging. What they found confirmed the findings of a smaller pilot project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Ross and his colleagues are now looking ahead to larger clinical trials at NYU and several other sites using psilocybin for cancer patients, and to test psychedelics as treatments for drug addiction, alcoholism and even cigarette smoking.

Ross, the 42-year-old director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital in New York, is an unlikely apostle for psychedelics. He became fascinated with end-of-life issues when he was growing up in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades and his physician mother took him to hospice centres. ‘She introduced me to the concept of a good death,’ Ross said. ‘When I was an intern at Columbia, I spent three months in the cancer wards and I watched people die there,’ he continued. ‘But those were bad deaths, full of anxiety and pain, and we didn’t learn anything about palliative care.’

Scientists still don’t completely understand why psychedelics seem to offer a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment

Ross is part of a new generation of researchers who have re-discovered what scientists knew more than half a century ago: that psychedelics can be good medicine. At such elite research centres around the world as NYU, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and the University of New Mexico, psychedelic research is inching its way back to respectability, thanks to the persistence of a cadre of scientists dedicated to making psychedelics part of our psychiatric arsenal. In the 1950s and ’60s, they were used to treat an astonishing array of mental ills for which modern medicine still offers little in the way of effective relief, from alcoholism and drug addiction to autism and the existential despair at the end of life. Scientists still don’t completely understand why psychedelics seem to offer a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment, allowing people to experience life-changing insights that they are often unable to achieve after decades of therapy. But researchers are hopeful that will change, and that the success of these new studies will signal a renaissance in research into these powerful mind-altering drugs.

NYU has become a nexus of sorts for this rebirth, and the group there took root when Jeffrey Guss began teaching a class called ‘Psychedelics and Psychiatry’ in 2008. This was the first time psychedelic therapy was taught at an American medical school in more than half a century. Guss decided to start the seminars after a meeting with UCLA’s Charles Grob, who was then in the midst of his cancer study. ‘He made it seem much more realistic that this research might be done again in the US,’ Guss recalled. ‘He encouraged me to read some of the research articles that had been published decades ago, and I realised I hadn’t read a single one of them. That’s what inspired the lectures.’

With Guss’s help, Ross and Anthony Bossis, a clinical psychologist at NYU, formed the nucleus of the research team that was eventually able to shepherd the NYU cancer study through a thicket of bureaucratic red tape. The Bluestone Research Center, which Guss describes as a cross between a hospital and a hotel, turned out to be an ideal setting because it has the medical infrastructure needed in case of emergencies and the requisite facilities to test experimental treatments.

‘In order to find those 32 patients, we’ve talked to hundreds of oncologists,’ Guss said. ‘Psychedelics have been blackwashed pretty thoroughly in American medicine. But the more we keep talking about the possible role of psilocybin, the more people hear about it, the more it gets rid of some of the fear and stigma. Still, they’re not a panacea. Without supervision, they can evoke really dangerous and disturbed behaviour.’

This dark side to psychedelics is why they were banished from the therapeutic mainstream. Peyote and mescaline have been used in shamanistic rituals for centuries, but the modern era of hallucinogenic research began in April 1943. Albert Hofmann was a plant chemist at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, who was researching the medicinal potential of the alkaloids contained in ergot, a fungus that lives in rye. One afternoon, he accidentally dosed himself with one of these chemicals, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and took the world’s first documented acid trip. His serendipitous discovery of the mind-altering effects of LSD electrified fellow scientists, who instantly recognised its therapeutic potential, triggering an explosion in research after the Second World War.

Psychiatrists were encouraged by Sandoz to sample Delysid, LSD’s brand name, before giving it to their patients so they could understand the experience. Many of these sessions were life-changing, and there were commonalities among them: patients would undergo an intense catharsis and release repressed psychic material, which would trigger profound insights about the roots of their disordered behaviour, and transcendent mystical experiences. This new self-awareness sometimes sparked nearly spontaneous recoveries – even among those with seemingly intractable ills, which years of psychotherapy and medication hadn’t helped.

By the early 1960s, more than 2,000 studies encompassing more than 40,000 patients had been conducted using LSD and other hallucinogens to treat such psychiatric disorders as schizophrenia, autism, drug addiction, alcoholism and chronic depression. The research was rigorous, and the results were published in reputable medical journals, but all that changed when a brilliant young Harvard lecturer with an insatiable appetite for media attention decided to give psychedelics to his graduate students. His name was Timothy Leary and the rest, as they say, is history. LSD and other hallucinogens escaped the lab and became a symbol of the dark side of the 1960s, when people took adulterated street drugs and began showing up in hospital emergency rooms on bad acids trips, gripped by severe panic attacks or in the throes of psychotic breakdowns. Sandoz stopped supplying researchers in 1966, terrified federal officials banned it in 1968, and legitimate scientific research had ground to a halt by 1972.

the day-long psychedelic sessions are carefully monitored by two therapists, with tranquilising drugs kept on hand in case there’s a freak-out

Mainstream researchers have distanced themselves from the excesses of the 1960s, and made sure their experiments meet with today’s more exacting standards. Typically, studies are double-blind and placebo-controlled: that means that half the test subjects get a dummy pill while the rest receive the real thing, but the researchers themselves don’t know what’s in the capsules in order to eliminate any possible biases that could slant test results. Potential candidates are carefully screened, and given a battery of tests to establish not only baseline measures of their psychological states, but also to ensure that they don’t suffer from serious psychiatric illnesses. The participants who make the cut undergo three or four counselling sessions to prepare them for the psychedelic experience, and the day-long psychedelic sessions are carefully monitored by two therapists, with tranquilising drugs kept on hand in case there’s a freak-out.

Because of advances in imaging technology, scientists now have a much better idea of what these drugs do to the brain, and why they spark such profound alterations in perception, behaviour and mood. Psilocybin and LSD, classified chemically as tryptamines, are structurally similar to serotonin, a powerful chemical messenger that expedites the transmission of nerve signals in the brain. Psychedelics such as psilocybin latch on to a specific set of serotonin receptors, believed to regulate the processing of sensory information (taste, touch, hearing, vision). When psychedelics stimulate these receptors, it amplifies their signals and alters their frequency, triggering the visual alterations and the loosening of ego boundaries that typify the psychedelic experience.

The insights gleaned under the influence of psilocybin often lead to lasting changes because participants seem to experience spiritual awakenings and substantial shifts in their perceptions of the world. When Gina Baker (not her real name) underwent a psilocybin session, like Nick Fernandez, at NYU in October 2012, she was riddled with constant worries that her ovarian cancer would return. The anxiety, along with her tough childhood, had caused her to lose control of her emotional eating, but during her psychedelic session, she was able to get past both. ‘I spent my entire life feeling like an outsider and that the world was a hostile place,’ said the 67-year-old Brooklyn native. ‘But under the influence of the drug, I saw my fear as a big black mass and I felt like I was going to be eaten alive. And then suddenly, the fear just disappeared and I felt enveloped in intense love, more deep and profound than I have ever felt, and not just for my family and dear friends but I felt at one with the universe. It was a moment of complete peace and lack of self consciousness.’ These changes in her perceptions endured. ‘It liberated me from my anxieties, I stopped overeating, and I even made a whole new group of friends in my neighbourhood, something I never would have done before,’ she said. ‘It was a transformative experience.’

‘When people are diagnosed with cancer, their lives can become constricted. They sometimes cope with terror and sadness by shutting down – they start to die before they actually do die,’ said Guss. ‘But with psychedelics, there is a flood of information, making people feel less shut down and more awake and alive.’

Read more essays on consciousness & altered states, medical research, medicine and rituals & celebrations


  • JAhootz

    Great article, glad one on this subject finally appeared on Aeon. I have been a supporter of psychedelic medicines for almost 2 decades and have financially (and otherwise) supported various groups (like MAPS.org) in their research. Everyone should have access to these incredible sacraments, not just those with cancer (after all, we're all dying), but cancer and other terminal illnesses is a fine place to start the research.

  • G

    The protocol involving lying on a couch listening to instrumental music over headphones while wearing dark eyeshades, was developed by Roland Griffiths in his groundbreaking study of psilocybin and mystical experiences.

    The placebo controls Griffiths used were of two types. One, inactive sugar pills. Two, various other drugs with mental effects such as stimulants, tranqulisers, and sedatives. The point of this being to ascertain whether the subjects' experiences were to any extent caused by expectations plus any type of altered state of consciousness. As Griffiths reported, psilocybin reliably produced profound mystical experiences but the other drugs didn't.

    Anyone interested in this field should read his paper; from a scientific standpoint his protocols, operationalisations of variables, and measures and analyses of results, were brilliant.

    Here I should make clear what's meant by 'mystical.' The word "mysticism" has become terribly misused, largely by the New Atheists and their supporters, where the word they're actually looking for is 'mystification.'

    Mysticism is 'the branch of philosophy and religion that's concerned with the direct personal encounter with God or the ground of being.' Atheists are free to omit deities from the definition and it still works. (Einstein himself was one such, praising the value of 'the sense of the mystical' whilst sharply criticising conventional theistic religion.)

    Mystification is 'making mysteries where none exist,' and is a cousin to obscurantism, 'the practice or ideology of preventing facts being known.'

    It would be most interesting if psychedelic research could examine the issue of mystical experiences for atheists and agnostics. Ideally it should be possible to produce the 'persisting positive changes in outlook and behaviour' that characterise the mystical experience, without need of theistic content or spiritual assumptions about the nature of reality. The goal here would be to develop clinical protocols to serve the needs of those who reject belief in any theistic or spiritual interpretation of reality or their own lives.

    • tarry2020

      Absolutely, we need to check if atheists are able to describe their experiences under psychedelics in a way that enables us to decide whether these are related (or not related) to reports from those that use religious connotations to narrate theirs.

  • G

    A few other things:

    One, there is enormous medical potential to be explored for the use of psychedelic drugs at doses far too small to produce any psychedelic effects. I've been talking about this idea for years and it has recently been supported by a finding about ketamine.

    Ketamine hydrochloride is a disassociative anaesthetic that is typically used on trauma patients because it is safe even if the patient has been brought in from e.g. an auto accident after consuming alcohol or recreational drugs. At doses below the anaesthetic level, it produces psychedelic effects, though by a different mechanism than psilocybin. (BTW, last I checked, LSD was not a tryptamine.)

    Per recent published findings, ketamine at doses substantially below the level that produces psychedelic experiences, produces an extremely rapid alleviation of deep depression. By rapid I mean, 45 minutes to an hour. This is a remarkable breakthrough since all other antidepressants (e.g. SSRIs) take a minimum of a couple of weeks to alleviate depression. Thus Ketamine can be used successfully for patients who are brought into hospital for suicidal depression and for overt suicide attempts.

    I have two specific hypotheses that I'd like to see tested (if I was an MD I'd be looking to do this myself).

    1) Psilocybin at doses of 0.5 to 2.0 milligrammes per day (compared to the psychedelic dose of 30 mg.), divided dose (half at breakfast, half at dinner) will produce a significant reduction in anger and rage in patients who are prone to these emotions and related behaviours. This is testable with patients who are known to fly into violent rages on little provocation. It is potentially of value in preventing rage behaviours such as road rage. It may also be of value in prison settings.

    2) LSD at doses of 2 - 5 microgrammes per day (compared to the psychedelic dose of 100 - 200 microgrammes), single dose (taken at breakfast) will slow age-related cognitive decline, and could be synergistic with future treatments for Alzheimer's.

    Two: For laypersons who read these articles and become intrigued with psychedelics: These drugs are 'safe & effective when used as directed,' which means in an FDA (or UK equivalent) approved research or clinical protocol conducted with proper medical supervision. They are not particularly safe to take outside of that context, and they can be overtly dangerous when taken in random social settings or in public places. As well, illicit sources of these compounds are highly unreliable as to purity and potency: you could be getting virtually nothing, or a massive dose, or some unrelated but truly dangerous drug, and there is no way to tell in advance.

    The greatest benefit to society from psychedelics, will occur if we stick to the present path of careful research and cautious conclusions, all of this occurring in proper university and similar research and clinical settings. What we do not need is a repeat of the whole Tim Leary scenario, of popularisation and popular misuse of these drugs: that will only provoke another backlash that will send them into scientific and medical exile again.

    If you want to support doing this the right way, join MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) and send yearly donations. Read the published research. If you are a clinician, you might also find ways to make use of other findings and insights from the research, even in the absence of access to these drugs in your practice.

    Lastly, if you're a subject in an approved protocol and scheduled for a psychedelic trip, I'd suggest not drinking 'industrial-strength coffee' that day. Caffeine is a powerful drug in its own right, that can confound (interfere with) the effects of psilocybin. If you need a daily dose of caffeine to avoid headaches and suchlike (physical dependence on caffeine), take the amount needed for that purpose, but don't overdo. You should probably experiment on yourself to find out what that minimal dose of caffeine is, for example does one cup of tea work?, one can of cola?, something else?; this so you know in advance what your minimal caffeine dose would be on the morning of a psychedelic trip.

    One more thing: if the protocol makes room for this, bring some paper or a laptop or tablet, and take notes after the trip.

    As for the rest of us, the greatest benefit we'll find in all of this is in reading the published research and learning about new findings and their implications for our understanding of human minds. This is much the same as for any other field of science. If you can't do the physics experiment yourself, or don't have access to the biology lab or the chem lab or the space telescope, you can read the published literature and learn. And that, in and of itself, is enormously mind-expanding.

    • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

      Nice reasoned thinking ... and without the woo-woo "I travelled through the universe with angels guiding me" etc reportage. I feel this aspect could restrict the level of professional research into this therapy. I had many friends who had good and bad acid trips in the '70's and a couple who ended up badly disturbed so your warning is apt.

      With current research into brain function like The Human Brain Project in Switzerland, I think that eventually we will be able to explore the chemical reactions and resultant mood/emotional reactions more closely and hopefully develop new drug protocols for a more enlightened approach to terminal illness.

      Whether we connect with some super-consciousness or not is, I feel secondary to making the final journey as pleasant, interesting, painless and psychologically expansive as possible.

      Personally, if I could afford it, a suite in the Paris Ritz would be my option.

      • http://thewayitis.info/ Derek Roche

        Or a beach.

      • G

        Thanks. There's a fine line between 'state-specific logic' (Charles Tart, 1975 if I recall correctly, also published in Scientific American, widely available online, keyword search 'state-specific science') vs. 'woo,' and people who are engaged in legitimate psychedelic research are generally very much aware of it.

        'State-specific logic' is the term for systems of reasoning that occur in altered states. Most of us are familiar with dream logic, and there are plenty of popular jokes about drunk logic and stoned logic. Psychedelic logic is another example. These systems of reasoning are not intended (Tart was very clear about this) to be postulated as ontologically 'true,' and they are best understood in a manner similar to the way anthropologists understand the systems of reasoning used in various cultures. (This is not to say that we won't find things that are in fact useful: for example Asian philosophical systems use logical statements and conditions that don't equate to anything in Western logic, but are insightful and useful.)

        Tart's point was that to fully understand altered states, one should seek to understand the systems of reasoning that occur in them. He also thought it would be highly interesting to seek to develop new approaches to scientific reasoning that were internally consistent within various altered states.

        This is something that clinicians already know and utilise, in working with the symbol-systems that patients use. A patient may have an experience of, for example, starting to fight a monster and then discovering it's part of him/herself, and making peace with it, and thereby overcome a persistent anxiety that was driven by cognitive dissonance. From the outside we know that monsters aren't physically real in the same sense as dogs and cats, etc. etc., but in a psychodynamic context a monster may be a useful symbol to a patient. The same case obtains for angels, deities, spirit guides, ETs, and suchlike entities that people encounter in psychedelic trips or in deep hypnotic states or near-death experiences. These things are 'real' in a symbolic sense whether or not they are real in any physical sense.

        The place where this can cross over into 'woo' is what I've called 'psychedelic fundamentalism,' though it also pertains to other altered states as well: 'I saw an angel, therefore angels are veridically, objectively real, in the same sense as cats and dogs.' In my opinion one of the McKenna brothers, both of whom were heavily engaged with DMT and wrote extensively about it, slipped into psychedelic fundamentalism when they asserted that the entities they encountered were literally real. If you look up their writings, you'll see plenty of examples of this kind of thinking.

        But keep in mind, this is not unique to psychedelics: it most often occurs in religion, and in that context often becomes politicised and violent, such as the American Religious Right (fundamentalist Christianity) and the Taliban (fundamentalist Islam). My working hypothesis for all fundamentalisms, is that they reflect a trait of excessive concrete thinking and impaired symbolic thinking, that will ultimately be found to have a neurological basis in brain structure and chemistry.

        This is not to say that there isn't potential for veridical content in altered states: clearly there is. For example Kekule's discovery of the structure of the benzene ring first occurred to him in the hypnagogic state (the borderline state between waking and sleeping), where he saw a visual image of a snake grasping its tail in its mouth and rolling down a hill, that suggested to him the structure of the molecule. Crick's discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA was suggested to him in an image he saw during an LSD trip under the supervision of a psychiatrist. Many are the engineers and artists who also have been similarly inspired and gone on to produce tangible works of recognised value as a result.

        Your point is well-taken that anything that appears to be dabbling in, much less endorsing, overt woo, will tend to scare off a certain segment of the scientific community. This is why those who are presently engaged in the research should go out of their way to distinguish between state-specific logic and symbolic thinking, on one hand, and concrete statements of testable hypotheses and findings, on the other. So far they appear to be doing a good job at this. Hopefully they will continue to do so.

        As for the larger metaphysical questions, some of those aren't directly addressable through science (such as if they're untestable, or if they're statements of value) but more properly belong to the realm of philosophy. At present we see many instances of this, most notably in physics (implications of quantum theory), astrophysics (the current discussions of multiverse theories), and biology (nature vs. nurture in light of modern genetics). Thus it shouldn't be surprising to see metaphysical discussions arising in relation to psychedelic research, and it's part of the healthy overall development of the field.

        • G

          Though, I should also mention, I think DMT will end up becoming a highly useful drug for psychotherapy. Not in the 'heroic doses' the McKenna brothers recommend, and not even in the lower psychedelic dose range, but in a range that's below that level. For example 10 - 15 milligrammes by smoking, or corresponding quantity by injection, for a person of normal body weight (a normal psychedelic dose is 20 - 30 milligrammes).

          The great advantage of DMT is its brief period of action: 10 minutes to an hour depending on dose, typically 30 minutes. In the dose range I'm suggesting, DMT can provide a rapid survey of the contents of one's thoughts at a given point in time, with representation of thoughts into imagery to make them more accessible.

          The brief duration of effect makes it suitable for outpatient treatment, where a patient might only need to rest up in a recovery room for another hour after the session, before returning home. Though to be safe & sure, they should still be picked up by a friend, even if they're planning to take public transport.

  • Jill Neimark

    Wonderful, timely piece!! I've just been reading books on the use of San Pedro cactus in Peru, by Hillary Webb, and Dr Glass-Coffin (both PhD female anthropologists who went through shamanic experiences themselves). I do think expectation and setting matter, as my recollection is that the book DMT The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, when he did longterm followup he couldn't find the major life changes you find with NDE's. Not that his work is definitive. Thanks for a great investigation.

  • Shonagon

    I wish someone would do a study with psychedelics on chronic pain patients. Years ago I took LSD and found it to be a transformative experience. But I think I would get a lot more out of it now and I'd like to see if it could help lift the depression and hopelessness that comes with chronic pain.

    • G

      If I recall correctly, the citation you're looking for is: Kast, 1972, LSD alleviated chronic pain in cancer patients for a period of 3 days to 2 weeks following administration, significantly better than placebo or narcotic analgesics. The reported pain relief occurred irrespective of mystical or other transformative experiences during the LSD sessions.

      I'm inclined to add this to my 'microdose hypothesis,' to the effect that 2 - 5 microgrammes of LSD daily, single dose (at breakfast) may provide sustained relief from certain types of chronic pain. And of course the usual caveats apply: Safe & effective in approved protocols with medical supervision, but not recommended for self-medication due to unreliable purity & potency of illicit materials.

      • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

        Your suggestions on marijuana as a chronic pain relief option?

        • G

          I'm not a doctor or other health professional (in fact I'm an engineer), but from what I've read, and also from the experience of friends, marijuana is useful alleviating certain types of pain but not others. For example one friend reports it alleviates his cluster headaches (an order of magnitude worse than migraines), but another reports that it makes his migraines worse.

          If someone has chronic pain, they should consult with their doctor about any medications, marijuana included. If they smoke it 'recreationally' and it stops the pain, and they decide to start smoking it medicinally, they should report that to their doctor as well (if nothing else it's a data point that may be helpful to others).

          One thing to keep in mind is, any drug that's being used medically shouldn't be used casually or recreationally, because casual/recreational use may produce a tolerance such as to require an increased dose to obtain medical benefits. I saw this once when I had to go to the emergency room: another patient was in terrible pain and the nurses gave them the maximum safe dose of whatever narcotic, but it didn't do any good because they had a tolerance from an early history of recreational use. Any drug you need for important medical use should be treated with respect and care. Pot isn't a narcotic analgesic, but none the less it should still be treated with respect and care.

          Lastly, one of these days I'd like to self-experiment with pot for sore muscles (such as after hard physical exertion), but as long as paracetamol (Tylenol) works, I have no incentive to do that, aside from as a hypothesis test. The key here being that my job entails design & programming tasks for which I need to be fully alert, and pot as well as codeine (Tylenol 3) make me less alert or overtly sleepy. I regard both of them as emergency measures (if the pain is so bad that I would have to take either of them to make it stop, then I should go see a doctor the next day).

          On the other hand, if I had chronic severe pain, I would be more than willing to put up with being sleepy or spaced-out if that was the price of making it stop, and I'd have to find ways to adjust.

      • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

        Re: your muscle pain ... MSM, Glucosamine, Arnica Gel, Homeopathic Arnica, herbal therapies with mint, ginger, rosemary, turmeric,
        Yunnan Baiyao spray ... I'm in my late 60's and have been practicing hatha yoga for about 30 years and now the age is beginning to tell.

        Beetroot juice ... No.1 recovery drink at the London Olympics for sprinters.

    • G

      For depression there are effective medicines right now: SSRIs such as Prozac, and the traditional treatment, Lithium.

      you're having chronic pain with depression and hopelessness, it's
      important to treat each of those symptoms, even if doing so mutually
      independently. If you're having trouble treating the pain, treat the
      depression, and vice versa. Any alleviation of any of those symptoms is
      going to help your overall outlook, which in turn will help you engage
      the process of testing various other treatments for the remaining

      ATTENTION WEBMASTER: something is broken, it is not showing Disqus content below the line that shows three columns of previous Aeon content, and attempted comments are disappearing when they drop below that line. Please fix.

  • sudon’t

    As the author mentions, this is old news. But it seems we are once again beginning to crawl out from under the rock of drug fear as a society, fear so deep it could not allow even research. One can only hope the changes in attitude are lasting, and that eventually, everyone would be able to see the absurdity of locking people in cages, simply because they want to alter their consciousness with something other than alcohol.

  • Adam Centurione

    it's awesome the psychedelics have a place in modern medicine. Especially with such noble cause.
    the correlation between the enlightened mind and psychedelic state must end though. The unenlightened cannot comprehend the enlightenment, and using a chemical to delude yourself to such non-attainable state is a contradiction.
    Psychedelics might be like a ray of sun shine passing over Sahasrara, and only a glimpse of a hope of blossoming.

    • Adam Centurione

      im not claiming to know enlightenment, ive only studied the Moksha of Pantanjali Sutras.

  • DireMouse

    In 1967, at 17 years of age, I was suicidal. My family was alcoholic, my country wanted me dead (Vietnam), and human existence seemed to be merely the meaningless chasing of things and more things. No love to be found. What the heck, I thought, nothing to lose by trying LSD. It saved my life. I met God (or whatever the loving consciousness behind all things should be called). I began to excel instead of fail in school. I have lived well in a technical profession, happily married. Nearly 50 years later I clearly recognize my first acid trip as saving my life. I thank God for love, and for LSD.

  • Peter Fraterdeus

    About time... a great article about real healing with #psychedelics.
    Of course, there are the inevitable "don't try this at home" warnings and fear of the "woo woo" factor. And it's true, I suppose. None of these things are meant to be consumed like wine & cheese, but we need to acknowledge that humans evolved in the presence of psychedelics. They may, in fact, be fundamental to the evolution of art, language and culture
    (Posted to Google+ at frtd.eu/pfraterdeus )

  • John

    The abandonment of psychedelic research was probably the single biggest mistake the medical community has ever made. These substances are so powerful that, in the words of one researcher, they "break the medical model" of how drugs are supposed to work. I'm generally not one for superlatives, but it's tragic to think of how much human suffering on a global scale could have been avoided in the past fifty years if research had continued without interruption. At least it is starting again, however slowly.

  • Kaleb Capes

    I'm glad science is finally trying to catch the F up. I mean who didn't know this? Every westernized domesticated human is deficient in these alkaloids. Entheogens cause growth. Spiritual, physical(auxin) & mental growth and are vital to the human species and many other life forms. These laws need to grow up and realize they can NOT tell us what to do with our OWN consciousness nor deny what we are. If you took mushrooms or any other avenue of tryptamine you'd understand EXACTLY why these laws are in place. Control. So free your mind and spirit. Un-domesticate yourself and realize who you really are... The Human animal, who perceives the world in a totally unique way. How lucky we are.

  • benny black

    always enjoyed feasting on liberty caps every autumn in europe when i was younger,cant say they ever done me any harm

  • sidthecat

    I'm glad to see that the government is slowly getting over its paranoia; we have a lot of catching up to do.

  • https://www.facebook.com/lsd25acid eric hendrickson

    LSD experience

    Took 75 mcg. Lysergic acid diethyl amide.

    11:20: First signs of effect. Nausea beginning.

    11:45: Very marked nausea. Had to lie down to suppress feeling.
    Great depression and feeling of regret at having taken drug.

    12:00: First sign of brightening emotions. Regret passed.

    12:10: Can dream vividly with eyes shut. No hallucinations, as yet.
    Colors in room clear, serene and pure. Harmonious feeling. Nausea
    subsiding. Erotic dreams.

    12:45: Begin to experience slight withdrawal. Colors bright, fresh,
    vivid. Hunger sensations. Nausea almost completely gone.

    12:50: Ate lunch. Hyperreflexia, muscular tension, drunken feeling,
    almost catatonic state of withdrawal when I retire.

    1:00: Very drunk feeling, but sense of reality very little altered. No
    visual hallucinations, except for reflected extension of colors across
    lower field of vision. Feeling of warmth and flush, perspiration.

    1:15: Gorgeous colors in vision; sparks of light in periphery of sight.
    Euphoria beginning. Positive phase of experience definitely setting in.

    1:20: Sheer bliss and ecstasy; very intense euphoria. Brilliant color
    in view with eyes closed.

    1:30: All splendid fire and heat; divine force pulsating in vision
    beyond all description. Gold, red, orange flames blending into
    harmonious patterns of incandescent beauty.

    1:50: Absolutely indescribable visions; all in most utter, violent
    motion, throbbing, pulsing with electric energy. Things changing
    from one scene to another without cease. All in bright, iridescent
    colors. Fluttering lights, firework displays; body tense, “galvanized”
    with electricity. Hallucinations splendid. Feel can will anything into
    reality. Hand while writing looks detached; imagine I can merely
    write a word down and the idea will be real.

    2:15: Vivid dreams; imagined could turn head inside out, see
    backward, etc. Very tense. Feel creative energy, revitalization. Colors outside very vivid and beautiful.

    3:15: Period of indescribable recall: actually relived childhood in every detail. In successive scenes, seemed to be growing younger, until age of approximately seven or eight. Could smell the little nook north of house with its bushes and greenery, the bark up in box-elder tree, taste the apples on roof of Mr. Moore’s shed, smell clothing stored in upper hall closet, see shady lane down avenue, trees in yards where I played as a child (complete with every knot-hole and configuration of the bark); remembered imagined games played with old cat; remembered suddenly dusty ledge outside bathroom window, and feeling of climbing up to it while creeping around house to my own window,
    dusty screens outside of room, etc., all absolute and real—never
    any memory remotely like this before! Felt bliss of never-ending
    summer afternoons, warm, damp greenery under trees, looking up
    at clouds and bowers of leaves; lying on warm cement under eaves
    on summer afternoon and scent of rain; no anxiety, ever-present
    childhood eternity of sheer poetry in timeless, lazy afternoons of
    July . . . Oh! The dear earth and scent of earth that bore me! Was
    back in crib in mother’s bedroom, watching blue-emerald light of
    summer afternoon outside in ancient landscape . . . bathed with bliss of mother’s smile . . . time hath no meaning for us—eternity is ever and now, and happiness is easy, not shrived for. Oh—the innocence
    of a little boy, without cares, worries! To know again after so long
    what it feels like! Thank God for a bounteous blessing like mescaline
    to recall to mind what is more important than gold and hurry!
    Something I thought forever lost to me. The odor of rain on dust, of sap in heavy, lazy, dreamy boughs, the scent of earth through blades of grass, seen by child with face pressed to the ground—caressed
    by endless, rolling-green, English-father’s-house lawns! Sun warmth
    and fertility, oneness and peaceful, desireless harmony. God! I can
    recapture anything, just for the asking! What a miracle! Oh, joy and
    bliss sublime! Everything crowds upon me like an immense embrace, loving, selfless, innocent!

    3:50: Muscular tiredness, tenseness; deep feeling of mescaline
    intoxication. No objective hallucinations this trip—walls very
    steady, etc. No feeling of loss of reality. Split personality sensation
    marked—very clear mind, but able to dream and experience visions
    at will. Little heightening of colors, much less visual
    hallucination, although inner vision even more fantastically alive.
    Mystical sense ;
    Continuation of warm, inner elation and electrified senses

    4:15: Brightness of hallucinations (inner vision) subsiding. High
    point of visual acuity passing, but not gone. Colors in vision are
    much paler, lacking in reds, greens, etc. Now mostly blues, greys,

    4:40: Still able to dream fantastically, but in subdued colors.

    5:00: Took 50 mg. Thorazine.

    5:00 to 5:30: Listening to music; one understands Mozart for
    the first time—as each phrase unfolds, waves of contentment—so
    pure, so serene—pour their lambent light upon the languishing
    soul, drunken with sheer bliss! Every silvery sigh, every shudder of
    peace and fulfillment rises clear and transparent before the senses,
    like bubbling water in mother-of-pearl chambers! The pure, oily,
    gut-richness of string tones sound with poetic sensuousness that they
    never before possessed. Every pulse of an instrument is a perfect sigh,
    every nuance an expression of perfect emotion. How intricate and
    lovely the interweaving of naked sound—the pure presence of eternal
    harmony and experienced sensation! The incomparable splendor of
    Mozart revealed as never before!

    5:50: Effects beginning to subside. Cup of tea produced cozy, warm
    feeling. Muscular tension, slight cramps all over body; drugged
    feeling. No unpleasant sensations as yet.

    6:00: Feel elated; rich joy of surroundings, family, of many possessions. Harmonious emotion of outpouring good will and happiness. Feel have been through an uplifting experience

  • Adam Centurione

    I never used to believe in a creator, then I ate three big pscilocybe cubensis.I still wont worship, but my experience told me that I am loved no matter what. No matter what. Everyone one, no matter who they are or what they do, is loved, totally. no matter what. This feeling was definitely feminine for me, like a great mother of all life. There's nothing anyone could do that would lose them this love. So who am I to judge? I must only love, it is the right thing to do.

    I also learned to worry less. I am here. We are all here. I am not ever sure I will really know what life is, or what I want to do with it. I do now know that I can be happy with a lot less. I can care for myself and my family. People have done it for the entire history of human kind. I don't need cars and roads. Only the food that the Earth supplies me with. I know that professionalism, books, clothes (especially clothes) are all rather peculiar things. Dancing, singing, eating, and hugging are my honest traits. Happiness and love are the most purposeful tasks in life for me now.

    There's no reason to worry. when it's over it's over, but I am apart of all things, and they are apart of me. It didn't start with me, it will not end with me. When you realise that, there is true peace.

  • http://tim-barrus.4ormat.com/ Tim Barrus

    Life is LOTS better on acid. Whenever I drop it, I have this habit of going to the theatre. Where I am immersed in a purple-saurated (everything is beautiful and why not if you think I should apologize or that I owe it to you to become clinical to make it okay, sorry no can do) fantastical world where all of the metal pieces (many, many), some moveable, some not, inside of me placed there to keep me together cease to hurt. Like wow, baby. To not be in hurt leaves me breathless. And then, I walk home from the theatre in a vast adventure of crowded sidewalks where we are all walking with no pain. My brain creates a painless world. That is deeply colored with something alive and artistic that has to do with benevolence; it's like seeing benevolence. I become swarmed by surprise. A highly valued surprise in seeing a world so unlike my own. A safe place and inviting. A far and distant place from where I live where my marginalized existence, pushing myself to be surrounded by people who are learning, too, churns like a machine in how to do this in ways where things were better because we were there; because we'll be ashes and corpses for a very long time, buried or burned, and this is all the time we have, and we are compelled to make something better, and being marginalized just comes with the territory. Where it's mainly about survival at the bottom of the human hierarchy and I can distinctly remember each trip down the rabbit hole, and all of them were spectacular experiences. Like the rush you get from seeing the glittering Aegean sea at the stroke of high noon for the first time is your lovers eyes alive with a poetic blue and all the wandering with Ulysses would be upon that sea of shattered dragons.

  • Thomas

    That must have been quite a dose. I have ADD depression and PTSD. Antidepressants do nothing for me. I am currently going through a second round of cemo. for NHL. It has left me devastated. My cancer came back much more advanced. I was taking adderall and Diazepam which helped enormusly. But because of a move the psyciatric nurses do not use stimulants to treat Add. Not only that they refused to acknowledge my prior Psyciatric records that indicate a diagnosis of ADD. This is the mind set of many physians and mental health workers. If you are prescribed A stimulant or a benzodiazepine you are a drug addict. Even if you take as prescribed. To me this is totally unethical. It leaves me wondering about pain medication when I am going to need it. I most certainly will not receive any help with the anxiety of death when that comes. I for one am glad that research is ongoing in this area. My one experience with mushrooms at a low dose is this. Anxiety gone and a sence of well being. I dont think its nessacary to trip to achieve benifits. If this is ever available as an antidepressant and to treat PTSD I'm first in line. I don't want to be miserable for what's left of my life.