Return trip

A new generation of researchers is heading into the weird world of psychedelic drugs. It could change their minds

Pure fractal flame by Cory Ench
is a writer, culture critic and independent scholar. His latest book is Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica. He lives in San Francisco.

3,800 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

We are what we eat, but what we eat is also a reflection of who (we think) we are. In other words, the stories we tell about the things we take into our bodies reflect the stories we tell about our more mysterious selves. A whale steak munched nostalgically in Japan would strike many nature-loving Americans as a moral horror, while the continued appeal of homeopathic pills lies as much with the holistic image of the bodymind they suggest as with their measurable efficacy.

This mirroring effect between substance and self is particularly powerful when the things in question are psychoactive drugs — those natural and synthetic materials that directly and sometimes dramatically affect the lived texture of human consciousness. So what do you think: is alcohol a social lubricant, a temptation, a poison, a medium of culture, a tool of self-medication, or the blood of Christ? All of these views are ‘social stories’ that derive their consistency from the shifting locations wherein human beings find themselves. We reimagine what we ingest from where we stand, and where we stand is a moving target — or better said, a dance.

LSD gives perhaps the best example of the kaleidoscopic range of narratives stirred up by a psychoactive molecule. LSD entered the world barely 75 years ago as a meaningless white powder cooked up by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann. Since then Hofmann’s tabula rasa has developed a panoply of uses: it has been a mind control agent; an aid to psychotherapy; a simulator of psychosis; a mystical engine; an aphrodisiac; a cognitive amplifier; a scrambler of chromosomes; a productivity enhancer; a demonic scourge; a revolutionary force; a good time; a god. It has been classified as ‘psychomimetic’, ‘psychedelic’, and an ‘entheogen’ (a psychoactive substance used to generate ‘the divine within’). It has been marketed under myriad names, including the commercial brand Delysid, and famous underground monikers such as Orange Sunshine, Windowpane and Purple Microdot. It has been distributed in (and as) vials of liquid, crystal powder, sugar cubes, gelatin caps, and blotter paper.

This swirl of costumes, names, stories and packages has not only influenced the meaning of LSD but also, to some degree, its phenomenology. When the legendary acid chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III was pressing his famously pure LSD into pills for people such as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, he dyed the batches different colours. The colours led to various brand names — Purple Haze, Blue Cheer — which in turn were linked, experientially, to different sorts of effects, even though the quality and amount of acid was effectively the same. Something similar is happening to cannabis today, at least in an increasingly deregulated America, where the red-hot market for ‘medical’ marijuana products has led to a complex and overhyped mythology of targeted effects.

the official war on drugs maintains its bankrupt holding pattern and the digitally remastered offspring of the freaks and hippies keep the counterculture alive

Of course, some of the most powerful stories about psychoactives are told by the state, even if those stories are frequently garbled and contradictory. In the US, for example, the pleasant Polynesian root kava-kava is available on the herbal shelves, while the pleasant Yemeni stimulant khat is controlled. In the UK, the reverse is true. Of course, the stories told about psychedelics like LSD were more demonising, and in 1967 the US government classified it as a highly controlled substance, a year after it became illegal in California. This regulatory act — a new story, if you will — thrust the compound even deeper into the underground, where its meanings proliferated along a myriad of spiritual, artistic, musical, sexual and social vectors that continue to morph their way through society and culture to this day. However, by definitively transforming LSD into an ‘illegal drug’, the state’s story also brought to a halt a wide range of legitimate, board-certified psychological and pharmacological studies that, in their time, might have reframed Hofmann’s molecule into narratives not so heavily freighted with the baggage of countercultural values.

Today, the meaning of LSD and other psychedelics is once again up for grabs. And the main storytellers are scientists themselves, who have recently been empowered to carry on the sort of controlled, laboratory research that was chased underground 45 years ago. So even as the official war on drugs maintains its bankrupt holding pattern and the digitally remastered offspring of the freaks and hippies keep the counterculture alive at events such as Burning Man, a growing number of psychiatrists, neuroscientists, research chemists and psychologists (and their often private funders) have instigated an extraordinary resurgence. We now see above-board research into the physiological and psychological effects of substances such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca and ketamine.

From a journalistic perspective, the stories emerging from these studies are story enough, but this resurgence of scientific interest has the additional feature of throwing our changing notions of the self into sharp relief. By tracking the emerging contests over the meaning of ‘psychedelics’, we can glimpse tectonic shifts in the meaning of ‘us’ — particularly, the question of whether there is any room for sacred forces in the increasingly dominant neurological portrait of the human being.

For a resoundingly negative answer to this question, we might consider some recently published research — and the small flurry of publicity it sparked — concerning the dissociative substance ketamine, a synthetic compound once widely used as an anaesthetic. On the street, ‘Vitamin K’ or ‘Special K’ is known as a club drug whose insufflation dependably makes things go all goofy-tunes. And some inner-space explorers have, over many decades, developed a taste for the magnificently uncanny and cosmic out-of-body experiences occasioned by larger, frequently injected doses. Even here, though, ketamine underscores the complex interactions of social narratives and ‘pure experience’. Though ketamine is not terribly different in either structure or effects from the notoriously violent street drug phencyclidine, or PCP, the cultural profiles of the two substances are worlds apart — a distance that some observers suggest has more to do with class and social context than with strict psychopharmacology.

And now there is a new competing narrative. Studies recently carried out at Yale, and published last month in the journal Science, have confirmed earlier reports that ketamine offers remarkable, nearly instantaneous relief for people who suffer from forms of major depression impervious to other treatment methods. Interpreting depression as a hardware problem largely caused by the loss of synaptic connections, the researchers argue that ketamine works by encouraging sprightly neural growth in brain regions correlated with memory and mood. Journalistic reports also linked this research with the development of a new vein of antidepressants, including Naurex’s GLYX-13, that have the neurone-fertilising power of ketamine without, as one report describes them, the ‘schizophrenia-like effects’.

By sweeping sublimities under the rug of toxic ‘side effects’, the researchers sidestep the remarkable paradox that psychedelic substances present

Rarely has the new neuro-reductionism been so naked in its repackaging of human experience. Nowhere in the research or the journalism does anyone suggest that heavily depressed people feel better because ketamine sends them on a first-person voyage through profound, sometimes ecstatic, and certainly mind-bending modes of transpersonal consciousness whose subjective power might itself boot the mind out of its most mirthless ruts.

By sweeping such sublimities under the rug of toxic ‘side effects’, the researchers and their partners in industry want to sidestep the remarkable paradox that psychedelic substances present to brain-based reductionists: psychedelics are material molecules that frequently occasion experiences that look and feel, for all the world, like the sort of mystical or religious raptures whose unfolding cognitive content calls into question strict materialism. In other words, reductionist researchers of powerful psychedelic effects must still squirm before God — or at least before the experiential states that recall the ecstatic reports of traditional religious mystics, or of shamans making pacts with non-human entities, or of meditators seeing into the knitted web of self and world.

This ‘return of the religious repressed’ is now part of the scientific literature as well. In a widely reported 2006 study at Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffiths showed that when psilocybin (found in ‘magic mushrooms’) was given to spiritually minded volunteers in a supportive institutional environment, it reliably ‘occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.’ Griffiths had designed a rigorous double-blind study, and his results not only influenced the future course of psychedelic research but also helped to establish the terms that have marked public discussions about the drug.

Even so, for psychedelic insiders, Griffiths’s results were still No Shit, Sherlock. In essence, Griffiths and his team had simply restaged one of the most famous psychedelic studies of the 1960s: the Good Friday (or Marsh Chapel) experiment. Led by a Harvard graduate student of theology named Walter Pahnke, with support from Timothy Leary, the Good Friday experiment showed that, over and against a placebo, psilocybin gave the bulk of divinity postgraduates something like a powerful religious opening.

But how far does this ‘something like’ get us? Although the follow-ups that Griffiths performed seemed to support the spiritually efficacious power of psychedelics over time, does his study really tell us anything about the sacred? After all, while his volunteers were unfamiliar with tripping, all of them already possessed a religious or spiritual world-view. It was Leary’s old message of set and setting: drugs might simply reflect and amplify beliefs and patterns of meaning already woven into the user’s intentional ‘set’ and environmental ‘setting’. The drug itself, in such a view, has no privileged access to sacred reality. Rather, like a feedback loop, it merely catalyses stories and perceptions already ‘programmed’ in the human mind or its surrounding cultural environment.

And even if psychedelic rapture and mystical experience ‘on the natch’ are somehow the same (which seems unlikely), that still does not sidestep the reductive arguments offered by some neuroscientists. A rising tide of ‘neuro-theologians’ are offering up ever more technically robust — if sometimes philosophically and culturally naive — accounts of religious experiences. For them, anomalous experiences such as waking visions, timelessness and a sense of divine presence might be nothing more than the mislabelling of meaningless brain events. Even if these accounts prove far too simplistic in the end, they do remind us that, once the brain is in question, all experiences are mediated.

Perhaps there is another way of thinking about all this, and perhaps this other way embraces a widened sense of mediation rather than a privileged sense of mystical insight. Perhaps what we see in extraordinary psychedelic experience is the temporary establishment of a circuit in which a variety of worlds link up and begin to resonate, so that neurons, cultural narratives, the lords of the forest, the serpent twists of DNA and the make-believe of ‘something like’ are inextricably woven together in a multidimensional matrix that reverberates in a rainbow display as sacred as it is profane.

If something like this is the case, then even hardcore reductionist neuroscientists will find themselves on a potentially paradoxical flight path. As the imperialistic desire of neuroscience to dominate and recode other fields of knowledge and experience grows, scientists must confront, in a robust way, the anomalous edges of human experience, those liminal realms where mystical, paranormal, synchronistic and visionary phenomena hold sway. Even while this encounter will continue to occasion reductive explanations, its exotic visibility will nonetheless cast a brighter, more public light on the phenomena themselves.

Though a powerful hallucinogen, ayahuasca is not illegal in Brazil, where the tea is used by urban professionals

I suspect we will see more and more thinking individuals cross over from third-person descriptions to first-person encounters, especially if the therapeutic and cognitively enhancing character of these experiences holds true over time. In other words, despite and because of our neuroscientific bias, anomalous religious experiences are on track to become ever more recognised dimensions of human experience. They are rightfully taking their place as ‘poetic facts’ — experiential claims that the living of life itself makes on us, and whose very persistence constrains the totalising aspirations of purely meat-based science.

One sign of this development is the fascinating scientific and philosophical discourse surrounding meditation and contemplative practices, some of which was sparked by the Dalai Lama’s sustained conversations with neuroscientists in recent decades. While some intriguing brain-based explanations for traditional Buddhist claims have been offered up, these explanations are ultimately less important than the zone opened up between neuroscience and traditional spiritual philosophy and practice. Meetings, conferences, texts, trials — these are the spaces where poetic facts collide with scientific ones. A similarly robust space of possibility and dialogue might lie ahead for psychedelics.

This is what makes some recent ayahuasca research by neuroscientists working in South America so exciting. Though a powerful hallucinogen, ayahuasca is not illegal in Brazil, where the tea is used by urban professionals as well as by traditional and Mestizo populations, and has been integrated to some degree into national identity. As such, the state has also begun sponsoring a number of ayahuasca studies, the latest of which was published in the November 2011 issue of the journal Human Brain Mapping. A team of researchers in the city of Natal used functional MRI to track how the brains of experienced ayahuasca drinkers behaved during the extraordinary visionary displays occasioned by the brew. By asking participants to imagine internal scenes, and correlating the imaging data with visual tests and psychological measures, the team was able to trace the shifting dance between different brain regions associated with memory, projective imagination, vision, and intentional imagery, and to offer tentative explanations for the intense vividness of the visions.

While such findings can support explanations that banish the spirits from the forest and lock them into our neural circuitry, this sort of research can also be seen, from a different perspective, as mapping the brain’s own potential reconfigurations as a transceiver of information flows — that is, as a reality machine that is as much like a radio set as a computer. While this ‘transmission’ model of consciousness is certainly more speculative, neuroscience is still a long way off from closing the gap between its explanations and the felt flow of consciousness — indeed, according to some philosophers, this gap is simply woven into the nature of things. As such, neuroscience might be seen not as eviscerating traditional accounts so much as weaving them into more multifaceted and open-ended meshworks, where social, cultural, and even cosmic frameworks interlock with neural and biological ones.

In any case, one suspects that this is what the spirits would like. For although traditional numinous accounts might not survive the encounter with neuroscience intact, they are far more likely to be transformed by that encounter than destroyed by it. The sacred, in other words, is not going to go away.

One sign of this is the rise of ayahuasca culture outside of the Amazon, where the brew gets name-dropped by rock stars and has become a must-have in the margins of the yoga boom and the eco-New Age. What is remarkable is that, despite this explosion of interest and the subsequent fraying of indigenous cultural use, the brew remains profoundly linked to religious forms and forces. Whether quaffed in Europe or North America, at the feet of touring Peruvians or white facilitators with varying degrees of ‘shamanic’ costume, or sought at the source in the Amazon’s increasingly commercialised ayahuasca service industry, the brew remains for its Euro-American consumers an overwhelmingly sacred, ritualistic, and transformative occasion. Traditional elements — the drunken cup, the sitting circle, the darkness, the songs, the shared gastrointestinal ordeal — all resonate with first-world desires for personal, social and ecological healing that are, I suspect, more sober and even desperate today than during the more wayward and exploratory years of the psychedelic counterculture, when etho-botanicals such as magic mushrooms and peyote were generally consumed in more informal situations.

The most active alkaloid in ayahuasca is DMT, the tryptamine whose study initiated the current wave of psychedelic research and also occasioned some of the more intriguing juxtapositions of religion and science in the recent literature. In the early 1990s, the American psychiatrist Rick Strassman began doling out hundreds of injections of the powerful, short-acting tryptamine to seasoned volunteers at the University of New Mexico. Strassman’s study was designed to collect psychophysiological data, but his project was inextricably woven into broader religious and spiritual concerns on a number of fronts. Many of the volunteers experienced astounding and often terrifying encounters with alien or divine beings. These quasi-shamanic episodes disturbed Strassman and many of his subjects, and Strassman worried that the scientific mindset and clinical setting of the study (as opposed to more traditional or spiritual contexts) might be a leading factor in lending them a negative edge. These arguably ‘religious’ concerns contributed to his decision to discontinue the study in 1995.

Another feature of the weave was Strassman’s conclusion that, by maintaining an objective biomedical orientation rather than a more spiritually therapeutic ‘set and setting’, few positive results were accruing from these encounters. A practicing Zen Buddhist at the time, Strassman also confronted strong condemnation of his research from some in his community. Part of this negativity grew out of the community’s own internal dynamics, but it also reflected American Buddhism’s inability, as it established itself as a mainstream religious option, to acknowledge the powerful role that psychedelics have played in the founding (and continued flow) of the Western dharma.

After abandoning the study, Strassman published some of his findings in the usual journals. But he also decided to write a mass-market book called DMT: The Spirit Molecule (2001), which included many of the mind-blowing first-person accounts of his subjects, along with a number of Strassman’s own more imaginative ruminations. For instance, Strassman speculated that DMT, traces of which are found endogenously (within the body’s cells), is produced in the pineal gland upon the onset of death, and thus might explain the phenomenon of near-death experiences. Beyond his curious support for a long-mocked argument of Descartes, who had located the soul in the pineal gland, Strassman also invoked the crown chakra of Hindu Tantra, though he noted that the pineal gland becomes visible after 49 days of fetal development — the same period of time that The Tibetan Book of the Dead claims is required for the outgoing soul-force to reincarnate.

Seeking to get to the bottom of psychedelics, we must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of neural reductionism and woo-woo

The religious and spiritual concerns that underlie Strassman’s thinking — he is currently writing a book on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible — no doubt fuelled the worldwide popularity of his book on DMT, which has sold more than 100,000 copies and has been translated into 12 languages. Some of these readers in turn misread Strassman’s speculations as scientific proof, with the result that the notion that DMT is produced in the pineal gland has become a congealed ‘fact’ in psychedelic folklore — a further example of the complicated ways in which sacred desires and phenomenological perspectives are bound up with the always-embedded context of scientific pharmacology.

The ongoing interplay between official psychedelic science and the vibrant mutation of experiential religion in the 21st century presents a challenge for everyone: for researchers, for drug designers, for shamans and neo-shamans, and for funding bodies such as the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, who must craft a mainstream public face for what is sometimes a deeply peculiar and marginal realm of poetic facts.

In seeking to get to the bottom of psychedelics, we must navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of neural reductionism and woo-woo; between the sacred and the profane; between spirits and molecules. Perhaps the psychedelic researchers who most successfully navigate this narrow gate today are those studying what help these substances might provide to people suffering the challenges of life-threatening disease. In Switzerland, Peter Gasser is using LSD to treat anxiety related to terminal illness, while in the US Charles Grob and Roland Griffiths have both studied psilocybin as an adjunct to psychotherapy with cancer patients. What is appealing in these studies, which have so far shown promising results, is not just the possibility of bringing some peace and insight to people at a very tough time. They also reflect the unique way that death and dying draws the psychedelic meshwork of religion, science and the self into meaningful focus.

Once again, we have a reverberation with the 1960s, when many people first heard about mind-expanding chemicals through the trip manual The Psychedelic Experience (1963), written by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner. This book mapped the dynamics of psychedelic rapture onto the visionary descriptions of dying, death and afterlife travel offered up, once again, in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Whether you interpret the text as a crude misappropriation or as a savvy psycho-spiritual mash-up (I think it’s both), its continued resonance is a reminder that, even if psychedelic experience is nothing more than a neural construction (and what, according to neuroscience, isn’t?), it still invokes the existential and religious questions brought up by the implacable conundrum of our own necessary demise. Indeed, it is perhaps here that we most see their mettle.

Like many of the death-prep meditations practised in Tibetan Buddhism and other initiatory traditions, psychedelics — provided, again, within an appropriate set and setting — can serve as flight simulators hurtling us through the shadow of death, test runs of the inevitable fear and phantasmagoria, as well as avenues towards acceptance and integral insight. Having died, even in hallucination, one can no longer quite live the same way.

And here, at the very least, the warring parties of religion and secular reductionism might be able to hold a truce. After all, materialists and New Agers, sceptics and shamans, are all united in facing the death of ourselves and our loved ones — a process that remains, even for the most committed sceptic, a mystery poised at the knife edge of meaning and the void. And mysterious ordeals sometimes require mysterious protocols. The gambit of psychedelic research is that third-person explanations will not exhaust the meaningfulness of wrestling with first-person experience. Like our loving and like our dying, our trips are ultimately known, if anything is ultimately known at all, from the inside.

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