The headline of a feature article in The New Yorker (February 5, 1915) reports with some breathlessness that after several years of university investigation, “Research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results.”
The less breathless author of the excellent and lengthy article, journalist Michael Pollan, describes the history of psychedelic research and reports on new clinical trials at New York University in which “psilocybin—the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms—was being administered to cancer patients in an effort to relieve their anxiety and ‘existential distress.’” One participant had applied to the study after reading that under the influence of the hallucinogen, “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states . . . and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” (That sounds oddly familiar…do you hear it?)
The NYU project is “part of a renaissance of psychedelic research taking place at several universities in the United States, including Johns Hopkins, the Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and the University of New Mexico, as well as at Imperial College, in London, and the University of Zurich.”
Pollan notes that “The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential” (which also sounds familiar). He quotes Stanislav Grof as saying that psychedelics ‘“loosed the Dionysian element’ on America, posing a threat to the country’s Puritan values that was bound to be repulsed. (He thinks the same thing could happen again.)”
The threat to conventional values and hierarchical structures was perceived as so great that forty-five years ago, Nixon’s Controlled Substances Act prohibited the use of most psychedelics in the US for any purpose and effectively closing down research. With these new studies here and in the UK and Switzerland, governments are guardedly allowing limited study to resume, introducing a new generation of scientists to the mysteries of psychedelics.
This is exceptionally good news and about time.But keep listening.
Pollan notes that with the Act, “what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry.” An early-middle-aged leader of the NYU study says, “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it.”
What is language for, if not to pass on what earlier generations have learned?
“Many researchers I spoke with,” said Pollan, “described their findings with excitement, some using words like ‘mind-blowing.’” Here are some other quotes from the NYU scientists:
“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,…Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding.”
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it.…They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
“People don’t realize how few tools we have in psychiatry to address existential distress. Xanax isn’t the answer. So how can we not explore this, if it can recalibrate how we die?”
A follow-up study…found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’…but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
~ ~ ~
Well, now. Quite frankly, I am still shaking my head.
What strikes me in reading Pollan’s superb article is the tone of utter astonishment in the researchers—astonishment equating with silo-bred ignorance not only of the years immediately preceding their arrival in the world but, as scientists, of what has been going on all along in related fields. What they are discovering has not been ‘a completely buried field of knowledge.” Stanislav Grof has never stopped his work on these states of consciousness. Life After Life has been selling well since 1975, piling up mountains of corroborating experience accounts saying exactly what these researchers are hearing from their study participants. How have they missed Eben Alexander? The whole field of Transpersonal Psychology emerged during those years. There has been no end of conversation and policy-making around psychedelics and spirituality. How did that all pass them by?
How is it possible they have not encountered these ideas in all their years of education?
Mind you, I am as guilty as the psychiatrists of living in the silo of my own life experience. It’s just that psychedelics had such a profound impact on the music, literature, awareness, and cultural shaping of the world they grew into, it seems insane that the subject could so thoroughly vanish. The article does at least notice Stanislav Grof, but only in passing.
What is language for, if not to pass on what earlier generations have learned?
Granted, the intensity of grad school professional training pushes everything else to the side. But how have these educated people managed to bypass the media attention to near-death experience? An amazing agility, perhaps. As pleased as I am for them and their excitement, I do a doubletake at the sense that they have planted their own flag claiming this as new territory, and all theirs. Neurospirituality!
This all reminds me of another story, from the 1990s when University of New Mexico psychiatrist Rick Strassman, author of the groundbreaking DMT: The Spirit Molecule had received unprecedented government and university approval for a study of the possibility that the endogenous (natural) psychedelic DMT might play a role in triggering mystical experience. Over five years, Strassman administered roughly 400 doses of DMT to sixty volunteer subjects to chart the range of their psychological experiences.
The experiences they reported ranged from brief episodes that were like full-fledged psychotic episodes with paranoid fantasies to sessions that seemed to be mystical experiences—bliss, ineffability, timelessness. However, it was also evident that for individuals unprepared for the possible effects of DMT, the effects could be terrifying.
Almost half of Strassman’s sample encountered otherworldly beings, described as clowns, elves, robots, insects, E.T.-style humanoids, or “entities” that defied description. They were not always friendly. One of Strassman’s subjects claimed to have been eaten alive by insectoid creatures. In part out of concern about this negative experience, Strassman discontinued his research.
Shinzen Young, the American Buddhist teacher of mindfulness meditation, has a quote which throws a curious and remarkable light on Strassman’s findings. In one of the teaching sessions on his CD series titled The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen talks about the terrifying images that may appear in advanced meditation—grotesque, otherworldly, demonic, even insectoid (my italics)—just like the images reported by Strassman’s volunteers.
Here is what Shinzen says about the images:
[T]hey are best interpreted as part of a natural process of release from the deep archetypal levels of the mind. Such upwelling visionary material is a natural function of human consciousness and should not be cause for the slightest concern: You are not going crazy. You are not going to get weird. You are not going to be possessed by devils, assailed by Satanists, or devoured by monsters. You are not going to be sucked into another world. However, if you have a history of prior mental illness, you should discuss these phenomena both with your meditation teacher and a therapist.
Unfortunately, psychiatric and meditative silos apparently have no shared communication. Strassman evidently had not heard of anything like Shinzen Young’s analysis, for that might have saved a major research project and provided useful information to study participants. The difficult experiences in the Strassman study contribute background to the worried reactions today, which are mentioned in the Pollan article. (University of New Mexico is one of the renaissance research sites.)
Now, once again, we hear researchers believing they have discovered something altogether unique, exciting yet possibly dangerous. They will devote their energies and their funding to an exploration of the biochemistry of psilocybin and LSD and whatever other psychedelics they are permitted to study.
I hope their silo has windows through which they can see their relationship with the decades of work of Carl Jung and Stanislav Grof, demonstrating that something about the human psyche functions as a gigantic warehouse with the “deep archetypal levels” Shinzen mentions. I hope they can have some connection with the work of Charles Tart and Ken Wilber. I hope they find Shinzen Young.
The new generation of research seems likely to identify the chemistry of those deepest levels, what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the repository of humanity’s symbols and icons and most moving images (and sometimes the most horrifying). But why? How? What do they mean? Are mystical/spiritual experiences only drug responses?
Not even the new batch of biochemical studies can answer those questions. That’s for the rest of us to deal with. Let us be very certain our silos have a clear view of the entire landscape.