The recent upsurge of psychedelic research since the 2010s reflects a positive development and illustrates that we are at a turning point in both academic recognition of the potentials of these states and in the war on drugs, which had brought psychedelic research to a halt for decades. Yet, scientific research of psychedelics did not just emerge in the 1950s after the discovery of LSD, but interest had already sparked half a century earlier on occasion of the isolation and synthesis of molecules that would later become the subject of many scientists’ research.
Synthesis at the beginning of the 20th century
The remarkable influence drugs had on decisions in politics, economics and science can be found already in the late 19th century in the devastating impact of the opium wars in China. Back then there was no general ban on substances. Drugs like alcohol, cannabis or even cocaine (for a short time an ingredient in “remedies” like coca-cola) were used widely throughout Europe. Although psychedelics had at no time in history been part of the “mainstream drugs”, there were groups of researchers who pursued an interest in the effects of these particular psychoactive substances. A testimonial of early drug research in the 1920s is the book “Phantastica” by the Berlin-based toxicologist Louis Lewin. Moreover, other fields like psychotherapy or psychoanalysis were interested in psychoactive substances, as Freud’s early paper on the palliative use of cocaine shows.
But it was not only the description and classification of the substance’s effects that took place at the time; the isolation and synthesis of several psychedelic substances that are well known today took place in the first half of the last century. As early as 1897 Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from the peyote cactus that was identified as a substance with strong hallucinogenic effects as described prominently by Aldous Huxley in his book “The doors of perception” half a century later.
The year 1912 marked the synthesis of another important molecule, MDMA, by Anton Köllisch. A substance that only now, more than a hundred years later, is on its way to recognition for having therapeutic potential, thanks to the dedicated effort of the US-based organization MAPS.
In 1931 DMT, another psychedelic molecule, today also known as an ingredient of the indigenous concoction ayahuasca, was synthesized for the first time in a laboratory by R.H.F Manske, a Berlin-born chemist.
Finally, in 1938, the first synthesis of the “superstar of psychedelics” took place. LSD was created as number 25 in a series of lab tests by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. But it wasn’t until five years later in 1943, that Hofmann re-synthesized the molecule, due to a “peculiar sentiment” as he described it. Only then on April 16th 1943 he accidentally came in physical contact with the substance, experiencing minimal psychoactive effects. This led to a further self-experiment three days later on April 19th, in which Hofmann ingested 250µg of LSD, an amount he thought to be safely below any perceptible threshold. But what he didn’t know at the time was that what he had ingested would later be considered a moderate to strong dose of the most potent psychedelic compound of the time, leading to his legendary trippy bicycle ride from the lab to his house.
Later, in 1959, after receiving sample specimens from Gordon R. Wasson, Hofmann isolated from Mexican magic mushrooms the psychedelic prodrug psilocybin, which is currently in clinical trials for its medicinal and therapeutic value.
This selection of reports aims at principally illustrating one case: psychedelic substances in their isolated form represent a very new technology of the mind that is available to humanity. Even though ritual ingestion of psychoactive plants has a century, if not millennia-long tradition, the scientific approach to these substances has just begun to take place in the last hundred years. There is still much to learn about these molecules and how to use the experiences they provide in a beneficial way, especially in our modern Western culture where by now psychedelics have been banned for half a century.
The 20th century – an age of new paradigms
While the isolation and synthesis of psychoactive substances – not only psychedelics – gained ground, another major influence of the 20th century developed: Psychology. Freud, in his early years a supporter of the medical use of psychoactive substances, unearthed the unconscious and created a fundamentally new understanding of the human psyche. Today, the methods and concepts of psychoanalysis are an integral part of a psychologist’s curriculum although they never made it to a core discipline in academic psychology. The latter was much more influenced by behavioral psychology. Nevertheless, psychological terms like “unconscious biases” or “Freudian slips” have found their way into our daily language.
Already in the 1920s the meme of the unconscious was influencing society and art. Surrealism for example used the medium of film and special effects to visualize dreamlike states of the unconscious and made these shareable with others on cinema screens. Europe was on a journey into the unknown, discovering “hidden parts of the psyche” as well as developing a new understanding of physics with quantum physics and the theory of relativity in the making. It was a time of changing paradigms and opening of new possibilities. Research made advances in many fields. But it would take until after the Second World War that psychedelics and psychology were brought together to explore their therapeutic potential in scientific studies.
Psychedelics meet Psychology
Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert made first steps in the academic research into the therapeutic use of psilocybin and later LSD at Harvard University. But due to disagreements with the university, they were later expelled and went a very different way with their ideas –leaving behind academy and academic thinking. Despite the slowly growing evidence for the therapeutic use of psychedelics and the resulting psychedelic experiences, many substances, including LSD, were classified as schedule 1 drugs in the US in 1970 under the presidency of Richard Nixon. This classification stated no possible medical use of the scheduled substances and shut down research projects for decades. The ensuing war on drugs, which can be considered part of the paranoia of the time of the Cold War, swept over to the world and resulted in widespread bans of several substances with potential medical use. Governments dreaded communists and spies everywhere and cracked down hard on people who seemed suspicious and “disruptive”.
But scientific interest had already been sparked by the impressive effects of LSD and similar substances, bringing together researchers from different fields over their fascination with the psychedelic experience. Chemists like Albert Hofmann or Alexander Shulgin dedicated their life to the investigation of new psychoactive substances and explored different states of consciousness themselves. Others, like Stanislav Grof, conducted extensive research on the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic experience, be it induced by substances like LSD or other methods like holotropic breathing. Many more followed on the path of psychedelic research and kept going even in the face of major resistance by governments and the media. They stuck to it because they were fascinated by and convinced of the positive potential of the psychedelic experience.
The Psychedelic Renaissance
Only in recent years, since the 2010s, the research in psychedelics has picked up its pace once again. With privately funded research groups like MAPS, the Heffter Institute, or the Beckley Foundation, several teams have begun to publish the findings of their scientific studies on psychedelic substances. And not only can they build on the foundations that were already set half a century ago, but with the new possibilities of modern brain imaging technology they were able to gain fundamental new insights into how psychedelics influence the brain and how neuronal firing patterns correlate to different states of consciousness. This new wave of scientific research into psychedelics promises new findings in areas like neurochemistry, psychotherapy and the understanding of consciousness – not to mention philosophy of the mind. In this exciting field of research, organizations like the MIND Foundation engage in connecting researchers and therapists, encouraging them to take the next step and cultivate the psychedelic experience from its current state as curiosity and recreational use to a medically and socially accepted therapy and integrated tool that facilitates healing processes as well as social and self-development.
A factor on the public change of mind towards psychedelics probably is the ongoing legalization debate of cannabis. Driven by scientific evidence the medical use of cannabis has been established to a point that more than half of US states have legalized its use to treat several illnesses. And it doesn’t just end with the medical use within the United States, the same country that almost fifty years ago started the global war on drugs. Several American states have legalized the recreational use of cannabis and are now reaping the positive impact on tax income, economy, jobs and reduction of crime due to the shrinking black market. Other countries are following the example in similar ways. Portugal has decriminalized the possession of all drugs, the Netherlands have been tolerating the cannabis market for decades, in Spain Social Clubs provide cannabis for its members and some countries, like Uruguay or Canada, have already or are about to legalize cannabis entirely.
This change in the public opinion on a former illegal drug and the ways to regulate its potential for harm indicates the mental shift that is taking place and clearly shows that it is possible to change the status of a drug through the support of scientific evidence. This should provide hope that a similar development can be possible with certain other substances that have potential for meaningful and salutogenic applications, like MDMA, psilocybin or LSD. Certainly these substances shouldn’t be completely legalized and made available for everybody. The most effective forms of regulation still need to be found. But it is time that they are reclassified from their schedule 1 status and acknowledged for the positive potential they hold when they are used in a responsible way.
To enable and further this development, the MIND Foundation is developing into one of the organizations connecting researchers and therapists from all over Europe (and indeed worldwide) to explore these potentials and make a change through their research, studies and practice. The use of the psychedelic experience as a tool in treatment and in self-development requires being re-learned and encultured in the Western world. Finding a way to integrate the psychedelic experience in postmodern society is one of the main goals of the MIND Foundation. To reach this goal, this organization is asking the support of excited, motivated, and talented people – like others all over the world. If you are interested in the psychedelic experience and how it can be used to benefit all of society, get in touch and work with the MIND Foundation towards a better tomorrow.