For as long as our ancestors have painted on cave walls, there have been references to the higher states of consciousness humans are capable of achieving. Often, these experiences are attributed to religious enlightenment, intense meditation, or some kind of terrible psychological plight.
However, more often than not, these experiences are the result of intense neurochemical reactions evoked by the ingestion of foul-tasting plants or synthesized chemicals. Once they take hold, these microscopic psychic guides pull back the wool of everyday sensation and thought, exposing us to mystic experiences and insights that can rarely be recreated. Regardless of any biological or cultural factor, it’s apparent that a profound connection exists between humans and psychedelics.
Unfortunately, the beauty of that connection isn’t exactly what comes to mind when the term “psychedelic” is mentioned. Due to a combination of ill-advised, excessive recreational use and a harsh over-correction in drug scheduling during the 1960’s and 70’s, these compounds have been painted with a negative brush and pushed to the dark corners of obscurity. Politicians and regulatory institutions took the antics of extreme psychedelic proponents, like infamous Harvard professor Timothy Leary and the counterculture movement, as a sign of the dangerous impact that these drugs unleash on society. As a result, psychedelics were scheduled alongside illicit street drugs and narcotics, with which they share almost no similarities. Lost in all the noise was the productive work being done in labs across the globe that showed promising signs of the therapeutic benefits of these psychoactive drugs.
The extreme measures of prohibition excluded even the most sound of experimental propositions, leaving a nearly two-decade gap in research that experts agree has set the field back tremendously. Thankfully, more progressive times, alongside the relative ineffectiveness of various traditional pharmaceuticals in treating addiction, depression, and PTSD, have seen the door slowly open to research requests surrounding psychedelic drugs. Recently, prominent entrepreneurs like Tim Ferris have halted their other endeavours to fund the research of these mysterious chemicals, lending a refreshing air of credibility and optimism to the field.
Organizations like The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and Johns Hopkins University’s new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research have risen to the vanguard of a movement exploring the potential benefits of these drugs. Thanks to the actions of investors like Ferris, open-minded regulators, and nonprofits, previously taboo studies are being conducted using the likes of LSD, psilocybin, and even MDMA in monitored, professional settings to explore their therapeutic effects.
New experiments will test the hypothesis that a broad range of pervasive maladies, treatment resistant depression (TRD), substance use disorders (SUDs), and even Alzheimer’s disease, can be improved through guided psychedelic experiences. The head of John Hopkins’s new facility, Dr. Roland Griffiths, pointed to that aspect of psychedelics: “One of the remarkably interesting features of working with psychedelics is they’re likely to have transdiagnostic applicability.” While some doubt the credibility of this claim, a growing body of data supports increased investments of time and resources.
Griffiths himself has been a champion of medicinal psychedelics, with a body of research that dates back to experiments around the turn of the millennium. To date, his findings point to a myriad of positive effects that the drugs have on addiction and mood disorders, while producing little to no long-lasting physical or psychological harm.
However, researchers are quick to point out that these interventions are not for everyone. Specifically, individuals who have psychotic disorders like schizophrenia (and even afflicted first- and second-degree relatives) are prohibited from joining these studies. The genetic background that puts these individuals at risk for permanent psychosis or neurological issues is something researchers consider in all screening protocols. Along similar lines, free and widespread experimentation is also not advised by professionals. While many of the horror stories from the counterculture movement are exaggerated propaganda, the fact remains that unsupervised use did result in a small number of preventable deaths.
Once participants have passed screening, researchers follow established treatment protocols: forming a relationship between the therapeutic guide and participant, preparing the participant for the dosing session, and then providing support throughout the psychedelic experience and its subsequent effects. Guided therapies have an interesting parallel in the traditional role performed by spirit guides and shamans in sacred sessions practiced by indigenous tribes across the globe.
A growing body of research points to potential breakthroughs that may be available by applying psychedelics to age-old issues of the mind. Trials involving relatively few doses have consistently reduced the amount of anxiety that terminally-ill individuals have surrounding end-of-life. Successful application to this small population motivated researchers to test the efficacy of psychedelics on people with more general, persistent mood disorders. Again, we see significantly lower levels of anxiety and depression reported post-therapy by the majority of participants.
Researchers are even hopeful that the powerful experiences produced during these sessions will be able to combat the epidemic of substance abuse that plagues millions across the globe. Building on the initial success of psychedelic intervention in smoking-cessation trials, there is hope that other addictions, to alcohol and opioids, may also be improved. Though many of the large-scale medical studies are just getting underway, there are anecdotal reports of retreats where the powerful psychedelic DMT helped to curb heroin addictions.
Following a less traditional avenue of pharmacological study, researchers have used volunteer participants to study the effects that drugs like psilocybin and LSD have on neurotypical individuals: those curious souls who report no psychological distress and simply embark on psychedelic journeys for self-discovery and consciousness-expansion. Stepping outside the box of symptom prevention and disease control, these experiments have accumulated information on the potential for psychedelics to promote positive changes in individuals by promoting traits like openness and creativity.
Maladaptive genetic predispositions aside, the renewed interest in psychedelic and consciousness studies over the last decade is a hopeful sign for us all. With the continued efforts of top-class researchers, trailblazing investors, and open-minded policy makers, we may bear witness to a quantum leap in our understanding of the human mind.