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Are you experienced?

The Appearance, Disappearance and Reappearance of “Psychedelic Art”

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August 20, 2021
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Assistant Professor in Art History

Jos ten Berge is Assistant Professor in Art History at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and has published regularly on drugs in art, outsider art, and primitivism.

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“More than any art movement of our time, psychedelic art has a future and potentials that lie beyond anyone’s power to envision. […] We are witnessing only the primitive beginnings, but already the outlook is awesome”.4 The only obstacle seemed to be the law.

Why is it that we hardly ever hear of psychedelic art from official art history? In 2005, Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg surmised that psychedelic art was “purged” from art history, as it wouldn’t fit in with the high-modernist line of development that leads from Pop to Minimal and Conceptual. Thus, this other, exuberant, popular, but less pure aesthetic was relegated to the realms of applied art, bad taste, and stylistic aberration.1 While neglect as such, of course, doesn’t demonstrate a subject’s importance, a short look at psychedelic art’s “official” history does show some curious quirks that may help to explain its relative invisibility. For one thing, there are the drugs. The once defining ingredient of psychedelic drug use seems to have been pushed out of view so as to avoid controversy and replace countercultural rebellion with harmless nostalgia and historical design. What happened?

Psychedelic art certainly has older roots, but when LIFE Magazine in September 1966 devoted a main article to “LSD ART”, it suddenly surfaced into the mainstream (fig. 1). The article covered a show of an artists’ collective trying to “blow the mind by bombing the senses”, which LIFE, somewhat surprisingly, deemed a serious new development in art.Other media, too, started signalling hip multimedia parties in bohemia. By early 1967, several respectable art galleries jumped on the bandwagon by presenting psychedelic drawing and painting, albeit calling it “visionary” to avoid too overt a link with the drugs that had by then become socially undesirable and even illegal in parts of the US.

Fig. 1 Cover of LIFE Magazine, 9 September 1966, with a photo of artist Richard Aldcroft of the US Company (USCo) on a drugless trip (photo by Yale Joel).

The ban also hit serious LSD researchers. Understandably frustrated, two of them, Robert Masters and Jean Houston, redirected their attention to art, probably also in an attempt to rehabilitate the drugs they believed in by providing them with an aura of cultural respectability. Their colleague Stanley Krippner brought in most of the artists, who, in the course of 1967, all agreed to be artists “whose paintings or other forms of artistic expression show the effects of psychedelic experience, usually chemically induced” and whose work may have been produced “as a result of psychedelic experience, during psychedelic experience, or in an attempt to induce a psychedelic experience“.3

Early in 1968, Masters and Houston published Psychedelic Art (fig. 2). It was the very first monograph that really defined the subject, although it later nevertheless came to be largely ignored. The work by some 35 contemporary artists was included, complemented by older art in which the authors recognised a “psychedelic sensibility” going back all the way to the late medieval Hieronymus Bosch and beyond, thus providing the newcomer with something of a reputable and partly drug-free pedigree.4 The book still breathes the legendary optimism of the 1960s. Masters and Houston open defensively by stating that drug use is of all ages and that none of the artists believed that drugs confer the ability to create art: “The psychedelic experience is experience, not injected talent or ingested inspiration, although the artist may draw inspiration from any thought or perception, whatever the situation of its occurrence”.4

cover of book 'psychedelic art'Fig. 2 Cover of Robert E.L. Masters and Jean Houston, Psychedelic Art, New York/London 1968.

Soon the tone becomes euphoric: “More than any art movement of our time, psychedelic art has a future and potentials that lie beyond anyone’s power to envision. […] We are witnessing only the primitive beginnings, but already the outlook is awesome”.4 The only obstacle seemed to be the law. If not reversed, Masters and Houston thought, “psychedelic art will either perish or, more likely, move entirely underground“. A fate, they thought, wholly undeserved for “an art almost totally free of the preoccupation with neurosis, the ugly, and the sordid – with, that is, man at his sickest – that saturates so much of the artistic expression of our time“.4

Psychedelic Art is also remarkable, at least among art lovers, for the rather unusual standards of quality that its authors applied. Apparently, what mattered most to them was whether a work could be said to demonstrate that the artist had gained some therapeutic benefit or mystical insight from psychedelic experience. Being all about a “journey into one’s psyche”, this experience starts with a sensory circus, ideally followed by a descent to levels that roughly correspond to Freud’s personal and Jung’s collective unconscious, before reaching the ultimate integral phase described by mystics since times immemorial.4

Accordingly, the best psychedelic art would express the idea that the universe is fundamentally right and harmonious, or else – or so it was implied – the artist apparently didn’t dive deep enough or got stuck somewhere. Thus, also framing psychedelic art as the natural and more mature successor to surrealism and abstract expressionism, Masters and Houston proclaimed this art to be “Dionysian, ecstatic, energetic”, “religious, mystical: pantheistic religion, God manifest in All, but especially in the primordial energy that makes the worlds go, powers the existential flux, […] seeking to prevail by sheer joyous momentum. Birth and rebirth, growth, and renewal. Being quivering in ecstatic oneness with itself”.4 One of the artists that they had in mind here was Isaac Abrams, clearly one of their favourites, and the only name that still consistently pops up in this context (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 Isaac Abrams, Cosmic Orchid, 1967, oil on canvas, 188 x 153 cm, private collection, as reproduced in Masters and Houston, Psychedelic Art, 1968.

Psychedelic Art was quite well received on publication. Reviewers were generally pleased with this first survey of a new art form, but also thought it too early to judge its merits. Nobody lamented the apologetic references to illegal drugs or the publicity they were given.5 Nevertheless, interest vanished so quickly that an art that surfaced in 1966 and was honoured with a monograph in 1968 seemed passé, if not taboo, by 1970. Whatever the cause of the demise of psychedelic optimism, it seems that during and after 1968 both artists and art critics, gallery owners, curators, and the like, apprehended that the “psychedelic” label now compromised rather than furthered one’s reputation and career.6

Legal and social pressures gave rise to self-censorship, but other possible causes should be mentioned too. For one, psychedelic art never produced a real master attracting serious attention or dragging others along into an -ism. For another, it tended to favour sensuousness at the expense of content, depth of feeling, and intelligibility. Its decorative exuberance soon proved monotonous; its exoticism as boring as the neighbours’ holiday pictures. In his contribution toPsychedelic Art, art critic Barry Schwartz complained that most psychedelic artists seemed to come running back from their experience only to say: ‘Look, look at what I have seen’.12 The net result of this attitude, he scoffed, was that psychedelic art tended towards visual doctrine, analogous to “social realism that attempts to portray the class struggle artistically“.7 “The medium was most of the message,” another critic, Thomas Albright, concluded in 1985.8

In fact, the famous concert posters produced in San Francisco and elsewhere cannot be said to constitute psychedelic art, at least not according to the criteria of Psychedelic Art. Schwartz spoke dismissively of “only the fashion of painting objects in the world in a style that is associated with psychedelic experience. It is poster art in the true sense: ‘See us, we are the psychedelics’”.7 As the posters’ main purpose was to advertise upcoming events that were of interest to the psychedelic community, and purposefully did so in a visual language signalling “difference” to insiders and outsiders alike, it seems indeed reasonable not to speak of psychedelic art per se, but of the art of the psychedelic community.

If even that: the poster style was quickly appropriated (or “co-opted”, as it was called then) by other parties. “Call it psychedelic and it will sell fast, some merchants say”, Masters and Houston quoted a 1967 Wall Street Journal front-page headline.4 For a time, it seemed that anything could be sold by calling it “psychedelic”, or “mind-blowing”, and covering it in wavy colourful patterns – even Republicans (fig. 4).9 “The real revolution of the 1960s”, Albright concluded, “was the transformation of practically everything – including the notion of ‘revolution’ itself – into a merchandisable commodity“.8 Reason enough for artists to abandon a style that made psychedelia look like a trite and commercially corrupted neo-Art Nouveau fad spiced up with satiated colours and Op Art effects.

poster art psychedelic artFig. 4 Jim Trelease, Rocky is My Man in ’68, design for a campaign poster from the 1968 presidential campaign, 1968, 60 x 89 cm, private collection.

And so psychedelic art quickly disappeared from view. Prompted by Psychedelic Art, Harvard Arnason devoted a few paragraphs to the subject on the very last page of his 1969 History of Modern Art, but deleted them again from subsequent revisions.10 Beyond this, Masters and Houston’s book seems to have become invisible. Even the huge 34-volume Dictionary of Art of 1996 missed out on the only book on the subject in a rather dismissive entry.11 And in 2005, when Grunenberg tried to give this ‘Art with no History’, as he called it, a triumphant return with his exhibition Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, this qualifier allowed him to include posters and design and push aside a focus on drugs. Indeed, Masters and Houston’s book was conveniently ignored, relegated to a footnote as a source of information on Abrams.1

To his credit, Grunenberg did break decades of deafening silence. But by speaking of “art of the psychedelic era”, he all too easily brushed aside much of the clash between counter- and mainstream culture, between psychedelic art and its popular offspring. Also, apart from the obligatory light show (minus deafening rock music and crazed-out audience), exhibitions such as Grunenberg’s almost by necessity focus on material left-overs, paraphernalia, memorabilia, and marketing collateral more than on sensory bombardments, attempts to “blow the mind” and many other ephemeral happenings fusing high and low, life and art, that also have been put forward as psychedelia’s most important achievement.8 How to avoid the feeling of walking around in a cabinet of curiosities commemorating some cursory trend in life-style and weird design? That may be the question here.

Lack of definition also perturbed other initiatives. In 2010, for example, David Rubin organised an exhibition entitled Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s. It focused on all kinds of arts inciting “an expanded awareness of the interior world of perception” using optical effects and the “psychedelic aesthetic vocabulary” as a “multipurpose vernacular“.12 Of the 74 artists in the book, however, maybe only 6 (including Abrams) would qualify as psychedelic artists according to Masters and Houston’s criteria, whose book wasn’t even mentioned in a footnote.

Nor was it mentioned by Ken Johnson in his Are You Experienced? How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art of 2011, despite almost quoting Masters and Houston by talking of an art that “seeks to represent, express, or induce” psychedelic experience.13 Johnson asked many interesting questions, but as he didn’t aim for a compendium of “psychedelic art” but for a new and “psychedelic way of looking at art”, he inflated the term to such an extent that it covered almost all art that critiques, doubts, reflects on, or jokes about something, or simply looks strange or “trippy” when high. In fact, for Johnson, “psychedelic” became more or less synonymous with “postmodern”, that epochal shift in perspective which he attributed exclusively to the “big bang” of psychedelia.13

But Johnson, at least, didn’t reduce psychedelia to a style, whether in art or design. Stylistic diversity also characterised the art in Masters and Houston’s book, and indeed, in their definition, psychedelic art cannot be recognised by common external characteristics. Whatever one may think of their curious bias in art appreciation, their book did provide a clear and well-considered, useful definition of psychedelic art. “Historically, an art form derives its identity from the work created, and not from the biography of the artist”, Schwartz explained, but in this case, “it is patently impossibly to produce psychedelic art without having had an experience of the consciousness that is its source“.7 Without denotation, only a wide variety of connotations remains. Let’s remember that, originally, the key question was not looks, but, indeed: “Are you experienced?”

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References
  1. Grunenberg C. The Politics of Ecstasy. In: Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era. Liverpool (Tate Liverpool)/Frankfurt (Schirn Kunsthalle)/Vienna (Kunsthalle) 2005-2006, p. 13.
  2. Psychedelic Art. Life. 1966 Sep 9;61(11):60–9.
  3. Krippner S. The Psychedelic Artist. In: Psychedelic Art. New York: Grove Press; 1968. p. 164.
  4. Masters REL, Houston J. Psychedelic Art. New York: Grove Press; 1968.
  5. ten Berge JP. Drugs in de kunst: Van opium tot LSD, 1798-1968. 2004.
  6. As it still did in 1967. In fact, at least one of the artists in Psychedelic Art later confessed that he didn’t qualify, but just grabbed the chance to have his work published (interview with Lex de Bruijn, Amsterdam, 14 June 1995).
  7. Schwartz BN. Context, Value & Direction. In: Psychedelic Art. New York: Grove Press; 1968. p. 153.
  8. Albright T. Art in the San Francisco Bay area, 1945-1980: an illustrated history. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press; 1985. 349 p.
  9. Yanker G. Prop art: over 1000 contemporary political posters. New York: Darien House; distributed by New York Graphic Society, Greenwich, Conn; 1972. 256 p.
  10. Arnason HH. History of Modern Art New York: Abrams; 1969.
  11. Sokol DM. Psychedelic Art. In: Turner J, editor. The dictionary of art. New York: Grove; 1996. p. 681.
  12. Rubin DS. Stimuli for a New Millenium. In: Psychedelic: optical and visionary art since the 1960s. San Antonio, TX; Cambridge, Mass: San Antonio Museum of Art; In association with the MIT Press; 2010. p. 28.
  13. Johnson K. Are you experienced? how psychedelic consciousness transformed modern art. Munich, New York: Prestel Verlag; Prestel Publishing; 2011. 232 p.
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Can psychedelics really change the world?

Toward psychedelic technologies

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August 6, 2021
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Social Anthropologist

David is a research fellow in the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the College de France, Paris, and member of the Hearing the Voice program at the University of Durham.

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Rather than opting for a seductive but angelic approach – seeing psychedelics as substances capable of “healing the world” – or a repressive approach based on the fear of seeing these substances become tools for “brain washing”, we must recognize what makes these substances unique among the large family of psychotropic drugs: their great sensitivity to extraphamarcological factors. 

Psychedelics: tools for social transformation or vectors of cultural transmission?

Recently, a co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion environmental movement publicly called for “mass psychedelic disobedience”. During the Breaking Convention 2019 conference, which gathered international specialists on psychedelic substances in London, Gail Bradbrook, PhD, said:

“I would support a mass civil disobedience where we take medicine (psychedelics) to tell the state that they have absolutely no right to control our consciousness and to define our spiritual practice (…) The causes of the crisis are political, economic, legal and cultural systemic issues but underneath that are issues of human trauma, powerlessness, scarcity and separation. The system resides within us and the psychedelic medicines are opportunities to help us shift our consciousness”1

The environmental activist’s comments echo recent interpretations of the data on psychedelics, which suggest that these substances (LSD, but also plants such as those found in ayahuasca, mescaline-containing cactus species, iboga, or various species of psilocybe mushrooms) may encourage users to be more environmentally conscious. Surveys of the general population suggest that experiences with psychedelic drugs might change people’s political views and their attitudes towards nature.2 In a recent clinical trial of psilocybin,3 participants scored higher on questionnaires measuring “nature relatedness” and lower on authoritarian views after treatment, with effects persisting for up to a year.

A growing number of scientific studies suggest that these substances can be used to reinforce pro-environmental behaviors and “biophilia”.4 This term, proposed by biologist Edward Osborne Wilson, PhD, refers to the people’s inclination to seek relationships with other living things. While people do not need psychedelics to make contact with nature, users frequently describe the sense of interconnectedness with nature as an important aspect of the psychedelic experience. Recalling the claims of the sixties counterculture, psychedelics are again seen as tools for transforming political opinions, which – some believe – would enable us to face the challenges of our time, especially the ecological crisis.

As appealing as they may seem in a world facing rising nationalism and our collective inability to address the ecological crisis, claims that psychedelics can “heal the world”5 should be met with extreme skepticism. Firstly, even if psychedelic activists have been asserting since the sixties that broader psychedelic use will lead to a more progressive society, there are way too many counterexamples for that to be credible.6 To take a notorious example, the massive use of LSD by the cultish group organized around Charles Manson did not prevent them from developing a racist ideology and committing violent murders in the late sixties in order to start a “race war”.

Secondly, we should not expect broader psychedelic use to automatically make people more environmentally conscious. As I have observed during ethnographic investigations in the Peruvian Amazon over the past ten years, the regular use of ayahuasca in no way prevents some indigenous shaman-entrepreneurs from exploiting the natural territories that they occupy in order to benefit their economic activities. The development of shamanic tourism involved the encouragement of overtourism in the Amazon region, and the activities of reception centers for international clients have often led to the destruction or overexploitation of natural habitats. And while the “shamanic tourists” claim to have developed a different relationship to nature thanks to participating in psychedelic rites, my observations tell a different story. In the long run, their participation only has a very weak impact on their consumption habits or the modes of production in which they are engaged, which sometimes directly, and always indirectly, contribute to the destruction of natural resources. For example, many of them continue to fly regularly in order to participate in the psychedelic rituals provided by the shamanic centers of the Peruvian Amazon. These observations show that while psychedelics can give rise to experiences of feeling more connected to nature, these experiences seem to be more likely to affect peoples’ self-reported connection to nature rather than leading to substantial pro-environmental behavior change.

These examples highlight the fact that, although the cause of legalizing psychedelics has recently progressed alongside scientific and popular interest in their therapeutic properties, this ‘psychedelic renaissance’ is still taking place in a market economy. This point can be further buttressed by considering how, in contrast to the hippies of the sixties using psychedelics for revolutionary purposes, Silicon Valley executives now use psychedelics in microdoses in an attempt to increase their performance, creativity and productivity in a context of strong professional competition.7

To be sure, this commodification of psychedelic substances has been denounced by some leading figures of the psychedelic movement,8 but there is a broader lesson to draw here. Rather than being powerful tools for social transformation, psychedelics thus appear as non-specific – and relatively neutral – amplifiers of existing cultural factors.  These observations suggest that the effects of psychedelics on nature-relatedness can be interpreted as a reflection of the prior values of study participants (often Euro-American college students). In this perspective, the alleged impact of psychedelics on our relation to nature may be the product of a selection bias, evoking the well-known systemic bias in conducting psychology studies with participants from “WEIRD” (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies.9 Euro-American college students, who make up the bulk of the participants in these studies, are indeed known to have a pro-environmental bias when it comes to self-reported opinions. Far from being a universal panacea capable of “healing the world”, psychedelics might reflect or amplify the dominant values of the individuals that use them.

This interpretation is congruent with comparative anthropological studies showing that while some features of the experiences induced by psychedelics are similar across cultures (e.g., geometric visual hallucinations), others vary extensively. The subjective feeling, meaning, or content of the hallucinations induced by psychedelics are indeed most often consistent with specific cultural expectations.10,11 Anthropologists observing these similarities within the same culture have consequently defended a culturalist approach to psychedelic experiences. Claude Lévi-Strauss,12 for instance, proposed considering hallucinogens as “triggers and amplifiers of a latent discourse that each culture holds in reserve and for which drugs can allow or facilitate the elaboration.”

But how exactly does culture shape hallucinatory content? Some anthropologists suggest focusing on myths and cosmology, kinship systems, iconography, or ritual to make sense of how culture determines non-ordinary changes in perception. I have recently proposed a model called “socialization of hallucinations”,13 which attempts to account for the way in which verbal exchanges and social interactions shape the psychedelic experience by directing attention, expectations, and perception. This question is far from settled, however, and much remains to be done to shed light on the extra-pharmacological factors of the psychedelic experience.14,15

Psychedelics as tools for cultural transmission: ethical issues and political challenges in the context of the “psychedelic renaissance”

In addition to producing experiences that are strongly influenced by culture, psychedelic substances have another remarkable property: Many observers have noted that the psychedelic experience is frequently marked by a striking feeling of gaining unmediated knowledge.16 The experience is usually received and believed as a revelation, without the felt need for external validation or evidence.17 Insofar as psychedelics produce experiences whose content is strongly influenced by culture, using psychedelics may lead one to feel strongly that the metaphysical claims predominant in one’s culture are true. I claim that these two properties make hallucinogenic substances powerful potential vectors of cultural transmission.

These observations can offer a (partial) explanation for the state of high suggestibility in which hallucinogenic substances place people, which has long been noted as one of the characteristic features of the psychedelic experience.18,19 If the therapeutic efficacy relies on suggestibility, this raises ethical concerns about the kind of influence therapists, shamans and other facilitators are having over their clients, even when therapy goes well.20 In a paper recently written with some colleagues from the Imperial College Centre for Psychedelic Research, we argued that these features of the psychedelic experiences may act as a “double-edged sword”.17 While it may drive therapeutic benefits, the ability of psychedelics to induce feelings of reverence and revelation might lead to problematic effects in the absence of ethical guidelines regulating their use.

The lack of clear ethical guidelines in Euro-American societies for the use of psychedelics – in contrast to indigenous societies, in which these uses are frequently framed by traditional norms – seems to partly explain why some psychedelics have been revived in research, but recently banned in some countries. In France, for instance, the recent prohibition of ayahuasca was motivated by serious governmental concerns about the possible use of the psychedelic brew by so-called “cult” groups for the purpose of psychological manipulation and “brainwashing”21. While the validity of these concerns can be debated, the ability of psychedelics to increase the assumed veracity of cultural propositions and the reverence for the holders of those propositions raises serious ethical implications that need to be carefully considered. A better understanding of how context influences the hallucinogenic experience is therefore necessary for identifying and minimizing the risks specific to these substances, and ultimately increasing potential positive effects.14

Exploring the singularities of hallucinogenic substances: towards psychedelic technologies

Without denying the fact that psychedelics have their own effects due to their neuro-pharmacological properties, the psychedelic experience remains strongly shaped by the norms and values of the social groups of those who use them. Rather than opting for a seductive but angelic approach – seeing psychedelics as substances capable of “healing the world” – or a repressive approach based on the fear of seeing these substances become tools for “brain washing”, we must recognize what makes these substances unique among the large family of psychotropic drugs: their great sensitivity to extraphamarcological factors.

This attention to the singular properties of psychedelics leads us to think of the psychedelic experience as always already caught up in a cultural and social dimension, and opens the perspective to uncover “psychedelic technologies”. I call “psychedelic technologies” the singular social devices composed of material, discursive, and interactional elements, which have the property, whether consciously designed for this purpose or not, of shaping the user’s experience. Since the development of Western societies’ interest in psychedelics during the 20th century, multiple psychedelic technologies have emerged, particularly in the United States.22 Institutions and individuals have developed specific devices for the use of psychedelics for psychiatric, military, psychotherapeutic, spiritual, or political purposes, but also to develop artistic creativity or technical innovation. For each of these uses, specific technical devices involving the use of psychedelics (i.e. psychedelic technologies) were invented in order to control and direct the effects of these substances in order to serve a specific social purpose.

The psychiatric devices developed by Humphrey Osmond to treat patients with alcohol use disorder,23 the experiments of Oscar Janiger with the artists of Los Angeles24 or those led by the CIA within the framework of the Mk-Ultra project25 thus offer the example of three types of different psychedelic technologies developed in North America in the 1950s around the same substance: LSD.

Clinical researchers are now working to develop psychedelic technologies for the treatment of mental health disorders. The acute attention to the importance of extra-pharmacological factors in the psychedelic experience distinguishes the recent wave of clinical research on these substances from that of the 1950s.15 As legal restrictions around these substances are now slowly relaxing in the countries making up the Global North, this may be the beginning of the emergence of multiple psychedelic technologies.  Recent work suggests, for example, that psychedelics could be used in peace processes in the context of socio-political or military conflicts.26

This opens up the prospect of a systematic exploration of extra-pharmacological factor in the psychedelic experience, the arrangement of which constitutes “psychedelic technologies”. This could allow us to better understand which specific factor transforms a certain aspect of the psychedelic experience and thus influences the user’s experience and subsequent worldview. This better understanding of the dynamic of the psychedelic experience could lead to the development of more accurate and effective psychedelic technologies.

These upcoming psychedelic technologies may put these substances at the service of artistic practices, for example, but also of uses that are more ethically questionable, such as commercial, political, or military ends. In view of the remarkable properties of psychedelics I have outlined here, the scientific community, as well as the community of psychedelic users, must therefore keep a watchful eye on the emerging uses of psychedelics and their ethical implications in the near future.

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References
  1. Wong S. Extinction Rebellion founder calls for mass psychedelic disobedience. New Scientist. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2213787-extinction-rebellion-founder-calls-for-mass-psychedelic-disobedience/
  2. Nour MM, Evans L, Carhart-Harris RL. Psychedelics, personality and political perspectives. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 2017;49(3):182‑91.
  3. Lyons T, Carhart-Harris RL. Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2018;32(7):811‑9.
  4. Kettner H, Gandy S, Haijen EC, Carhart-Harris RL. From egoism to ecoism: Psychedelics increase nature relatedness in a state-mediated and context-dependent manner. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019;16(24):5147.
  5. Gunther M. Could Psychedelics Heal the World? Medium. 2020. Available at: https://elemental.medium.com/can-psychedelics-heal-the-world-4ea4d5339a89
  6. Lucy In The Sky With Nazis: Psychedelics and the Right Wing [Internet]. Available at: https://www.psymposia.com/magazine/lucy-in-the-sky-with-nazis-psychedelics-and-the-right-wing/
  7. Polito V, Stevenson RJ. A systematic study of microdosing psychedelics. PloS one. 2019;14(2):e0211023.
  8. Cooperation over Competition! Statement on Open Science for Psychedelic Medicines and Practices [Internet]. Chacruna. 2018 [cité 3 mai 2021]. Disponible sur: https://chacruna.net/cooperation-over-competition-statement-on-open-science-for-psychedelic-medicines-and-practices/
  9. Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A. The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and brain sciences. 2010;33(2‑3):61‑83.
  10. Furst PT. Hallucinogens and Culture. Apparent First edition. San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp Pub; 1976. 194 p.
  11. Dobkin de Rios M. Hallucinogens : Cross-Cultural Perspectives. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque; 1984.
  12. Lévi-Strauss C. Les Champignons dans la culture: A propos d’un livre de MR-G. Wasson. L’homme. 1970;5‑16.
  13. Dupuis D. The socialization of hallucinations Cultural priors, social interactions and contextual factors in the use of psychedelics. Transcultural Psychiatry. 2020;
  14. Hartogsohn I. Set and setting, psychedelics and the placebo response: An extra-pharmacological perspective on psychopharmacology. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2016;30(12):1259‑67.
  15. Carhart-Harris RL, Roseman L, Haijen E, Erritzoe D, Watts R, Branchi I, et al. Psychedelics and the essential importance of context. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2018;32(7):725‑31.
  16. Pahnke WN, Richards WA. Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. 1970;3(1):92‑108.
  17. Timmermann C, Watts R, Dupuis D. Towards psychedelic apprenticeship: Developing a gentle touch for the mediation and validation of psychedelic-induced insights and revelations. 2020;
  18. Leary T. Drugs, Set & Suggestibility. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, 6 September 1961. 1961.
  19. Carhart-Harris RL, Kaelen M, Whalley MG, Bolstridge M, Feilding A, Nutt DJ. LSD enhances suggestibility in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology. 2015;232(4):785‑94.
  20. Johnson MW. Consciousness, Religion, and Gurus: Pitfalls of Psychedelic Medicine. ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science. 2020.
  21. Miviludes. Rapport au Premier Ministre. Paris; 2005. (La documentation française).
  22. Hartogsohn I. American Trip: Set, Setting, and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century. MIT Press; 2020.
  23. Hoffer A, Osmond H. The hallucinogens; Elsevier. 2013.
  24. Janiger O. The use of hallucinogenic agents in psychiatry. California Clinician. 1959;55(7):222‑4.
  25. Lee MA, Shlain B. Acid dreams: The complete social history of LSD: The CIA, the sixties, and beyond. Grove Press; 1992.
  26. Roseman L, Ron Y, Saca A, Ginsberg N, Luan L, Karkabi N, et al. Relational Processes in Ayahuasca Groups of Palestinians and Israelis. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2021;12:300.
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How to Change Your Mind with Exercise

Altered States of Consciousness in Sports
  • Blog
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  • 10 minutes
February 26, 2021
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Clinical Psychologist

Barbara Braun is a sports psychologist, researcher, and passionate "mover".

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“An altered state of consciousness is a temporary change in the overall pattern of subjective experience so that the individual believes that his psychological functions are markedly different from certain general norms of his normal waking consciousness.”

– G.W. Farthing

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “altered state of consciousness”? While they are commonly associated with substance use or the stereotypical Buddhist monk in meditation, altered states of consciousness (ASCs) can arise in a surprisingly wide variety of circumstances.

One of these circumstances is that of exhausting physical activity, which can both train the body and change the mind. This is because alterations in one’s subjective experience reflect not only changes in the brain, but also in other parts of the body. Different forms of movement have their unique characteristics which can facilitate various alterations in one’s consciousness: everything from running to dance to rock climbing and martial arts can produce a unique mental state.

Upon hearing this, one might wonder whether exercise-induced alterations in consciousness are even desirable. Certainly, one is in a kind of “altered state” when in pain at the end of a long workout and only wanting for it to be over. But though all who have ever been forced into gym class know this state of mind, there are other commonly experienced altered states associated with exercise which have more obvious benefits. Some of these – the runner’s high, the “Zone”, and the flow of dancing – are not only enjoyable, but are often associated with an increased motivation to exercise and psychological well-being.1–3

Before I take you through how different types of exercise can affect your state of mind, I have one important message: Exercise-induced ASCs are not reserved for high-level athletes.  Everybody who exercises can access them with enough practice and patience. So whether you’re a couch potato or an Olympian, there’s an altered state waiting for you at the end of some good, hard exercise.

“It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just get out there and do it.”

– Dean Karnazes

Runner’s high

A runner’s high is basically what it sounds like: feeling amazing during and after running. Scientists have also defined it more precisely: “A runner’s high is a subjective sudden pleasant feeling of euphoria, anxiolysis, sedation, and analgesia after prolonged exercise like long-distance running.4 Prolonged exercise, in this case, means continuously moving for at least 45 minutes,5 but possibly up to several hours, like in marathons. Similar experiences occur in rowing (“rower’s high”), and they might be linked to the synchrony of movement which is so critical for high performance in rowers’ teams.6  Additionally, both running and rowing involve a specific rhythmic motion and coordinated breathing, which increases focus on the present task. And focus, too, is inherently enjoyable.7

So how does one reach a runner’s high? It likely depends on training status, level of conditioning, and one’s neurobiology. Beginners, for example, may need patience. Experienced runners suggest starting with a moderate running speed as a warm-up, then picking up the pace quickly for a few minutes after the first fatigue sets in. Then comes the hard part: push through any unpleasant sensations as best you can to achieve a consistent pace until you absolutely must slow down (and of course: don’t overdo it). If you feel a sudden surge in energy that drives you to speed up – go with it. After a while, you’ll enjoy a euphoric runner’s high.8

Why does this physical exhaustion in the body create such a pleasant state of mind? Studies in mice show that intense exercise makes the body release endorphins, but endorphins alone can’t explain the runner’s high.21 When released into the blood after intense exercise, they act primarily as local painkillers. They are unable to cross into the brain, and thus cannot induce euphoria.

Instead, researchers posit that runner’s high might be the result of the action of endocannabinoids, which counteract feelings of stress in the brain.5 These molecules are similar to those that make people feel “high” when they smoke cannabis, but your body produces them naturally. And because they are fat-soluble, they can enter the brain, and their concentration ​​in the blood also rises with vigorous exercise.4 A runner’s high, then, might be down to endocannabinoids. In fact, one study found that not only running, but also walking for 45-60 minutes measurably increases endocannabinoid levels. Still, the researchers doubt that a runner’s high can be induced by “just going for a prolonged walk.” They suspect that during prolonged exercise, one eventually reaches a threshold in endocannabinoid levels which must be crossed to reach a runner’s high. And this requires running – not just walking.5

EAT. TRAIN. SLEEP. REPEAT.

CrossFit is a relatively new training program characterized by “high intensity, constantly varied, functional movements.”9 While running comprises lengthy exercise and repeated cyclical movements, CrossFit is quite the opposite: brief, intense, not cyclical, and much more focused on the variety of weightlifting and functional strength exercises than on conditioning.

Can someone reach an altered state through CrossFit? Approaching this as a sports psychologist, CrossFit athletes of various levels often experience what they call “The Zone.” This refers to the “individual zone of optimal functioning” – when everything comes together perfectly, only the task at hand has the light of attention, and you just go.

According to the sports psychologist and former rugby player Adam Dehaty, who works with CrossFit Athletes’ on their mindsets, the Zone has eight characteristics:10

This zone of optimal functioning is mainly determined by the balance of challenge and ability. When someone’s ability to deal with a challenge is too low, they will be overwhelmed and likely fail. The reverse is also true: when something is not challenging enough, people get bored and don’t perform at their best. The Zone is the happy medium: a challenging, but not overwhelming balance between task difficulty and individual ability. This is what makes The Zone an individual zone of optimal functioning. And indeed, it is not unique to CrossFit. The Zone is a type of flow state, in which someone is fully immersed in an activity with an enjoyable, energized focus.7 Although CrossFit culture particularly emphasizes it, one can be “in the zone” during practically any type of exercise – or indeed, any challenging enough task.

With the right mindset and a well-calibrated task difficulty, entering The Zone just happens ― if you are prepared. In CrossFit, this state partially stems from a strong commitment to reaching a goal with a rigorously planned workout: Counting repetitions, focusing on the movement in the moment, and anticipating what comes next to make a smooth transition from one task to another. All of this creates a feeling of a painless flow and performance with perfect technique, which saves energy and breath. Alison Moyer, a CrossFit coach, bodybuilder, and athlete from Pennsylvania, sums it up:

„So many times in CrossFit, I’m in tune with the pain – with the shortness of my breath, the difficulty of movement, the tightness in my limbs. But then, every once in a while, I discover those rare moments … that make me feel unstoppable, unbeatable. I’m aware of what I’m doing, and aware that I’m moving, but I’ve found the place right beneath my redline where my body just takes over and goes. It doesn’t matter that I’m tired, that my mouth is dry, that I can’t breathe, or that my legs are going numb. … that feeling, the incredibly superhuman sensation, is what keeps me coming back for more.“11

Many CrossFit athletes strive for exactly this feeling of painless, concentrated flow during a workout. After all, the intense workouts like CrossFit aren’t only about what happens in the body, but also in the mind.

Connecting Body and Mind – flow through Music

“When a body moves, it’s the most revealing thing. Dance for a minute, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

– Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ballet Dancer

Dance movement therapy has been investigated as an adjunctive clinical practice in psychiatry and neurology,12–14 yet therapists by no means invented it. Trance and shamanic dances have been used for thousands of years in different cultures all around the world, and they are still practiced by many, such as the Sufi Dervishes.15

Of course, the purpose of dance-related sports is very different from trance dance and therapeutic dancing, but they all share the connection between the dancer’s internal state and the outer, visual performance.  Perfecting both is crucial in professional dancing. One beautiful example is the Olympic gold medal performance in pairs free figure skating by A. Savchenko and B. Massot in 2018.

Music on its own is certainly a powerful inducer of altered states, but the movement of dancing adds another element to it. Music leads through rhythm and style. Dancing then, means to translate rhythm and style into a flow of movement. The synergy between music and movement can create a state of flow in which people not only forget about time and their surroundings, but also feel more connected to themselves:

“Music and beats are like a lighter that is switched on: the warmth and the brightness expand in my whole body: my head moves, my body moves, my mind moves. When I dance, all of me starts melting into the sound, thoughts disappear. I feel like being out of the system, out of time and out of space. I am in my own and I feel myself in every single cell of my body.”

–Anna, from Cologne

To enter such a state, one need only to be able to immerse oneself in the feeling of rhythm, move in different ways, and concentrate. Professional dance skills are not required – nor, even, is any particular talent! Altered states from dancing arise independently of how the dance appears to other people.

Dance is unique because many of us gravitate toward it automatically. When people hear music they like – and sometimes even music they don’t – they almost unconsciously try to connect to it. They start to tap their feet, bop their heads, move their hips, or whatever spontaneous movements seem to feel right (and are socially appropriate in the current setting, of course).

Altered states in dance involve fully surrendering to this urge to move, or mastering an intentional intentional dance routine. When fully immersed in the dance, we can begin to feel so connected to the music that we lose everything else. People lost in dance feel liberated, often stress-free, and even like they are one with the rhythm, their surroundings, and other dancers. They may lose track of time and dance for much longer than they expected. This is nearly the definition of an altered state: at its most extreme, the mind is filled with nothing but dance. Like The Zone, it is another species of flow. It is an intrinsically rewarding state, and dancers who experience flow will seek it again and again.16

Conclusion

Whether you call it “The Zone,” a certain “high,” “flow,” or something else: physical exercise and movement – especially in combination with an open but focused mindset – can induce an altered state of consciousness which may come both during and after the exercise. These altered states share movement as their basis, as well as the experience of an intrinsically rewarding state of mind.

Movement is one of our basic needs and it is crucial for a healthy mind and body, as well as a healthy connection between them.2 Because physical exercise and movement have the potential for enhancing valuable states of consciousness, we can easily see them as part of a culture of consciousness – a Bewusstseinskultur. Physical exercise both decreases and prevents suffering, creating a valuable state of consciousness which may even enhance our capacity to live well and connect to other people. In turn, healthier relationships with others can lead to further valuable states of consciousness and reciprocal, enriching relationships.

As a sports psychologist, here’s my advice: If you’re feeling down, especially when you’re not sure why, it won’t hurt to move. If you are stressed or overwhelmed, focusing on moving can pull you out of that mindset, allowing you to return to your challenges later with a refreshed brain. If you are feeling lonely, movement may boost your mood – especially if you can find others who share that interest. If you are really suffering mentally, you may need to see a mental health care professional – but still don’t forget to move, because it is one of many things that might help.2,22

Movement is not the ultimate solution for everything, but I suggest that natural movements and their potential to increase the awareness and knowledge of one’s body should be cultivated in everyone’s life. Integrating movement into psychotherapeutic treatment plans may even create additional benefit beyond psychotherapy and medication.22 Furthermore, a culture that values movement and valuable states of mind has the potential to prevent mental and bodily suffering in children, youths, and adults.

It does not matter what kind of physical exercise you do. Just move. Consciously.

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References
  1. Fortier M, Kowal J. The flow state and physical activity behavior change as motivational outcomes: A self-determination theory perspective. In: Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in exercise and sport. Champaign, IL,  US: Human Kinetics; 2007. S. 113-125,322-328.
  2. Wiese CW, Kuykendall L, Tay L. Get active? A meta-analysis of leisure-time physical activity and subjective well-being. J Posit Psychol. 2. Januar 2018;13(1):57–66.
  3. Jackman PC, Hawkins RM, Crust L, Swann C. Flow states in exercise: A systematic review. Psychol Sport Exerc. November 2019;45:101546.
  4. Fuss J, Steinle J, Bindila L, Auer MK, Kirchherr H, Lutz B, u. a. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 20. Oktober 2015;112(42):13105–8.
  5. In Bestform: Was steckt hinter dem Runner’s High? [Internet]. Spektrum.de. 2020 [zitiert 30. Dezember 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.spektrum.de/kolumne/was-ist-ein-runners-high/1805063
  6. Cohen EEA, Ejsmond-Frey R, Knight N, Dunbar RIM. Rowers’ high: behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds. Biol Lett. 23. Februar 2010;6(1):106–
  7. Csikszentmihalyi M. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 2000;6.
  8. Altered States and Exercise Part 1: The Runner’s High [Internet]. Florida Running & Triathlon. 2016 [zitiert 20. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.flrunning.com/blog/altered-states-and-exercise-part-1-the-runners-high-1494
  9. Glassman G. Understanding CrossFit [Internet]. CrossFit Journal. 2017. Verfügbar unter: http://journal.crossfit.com/2007/04/understanding-crossfit-by-greg.tpl
  10. Dehaty A. In the Zone – 8 Ways to Build an Invincible Crossfit Mindset [Internet]. BOXROX – Competitive Fitness Magazine. 2017. Verfügbar unter: https://www.boxrox.com/zone-8-ways-build-invincible-crossfit-mindset/
  11. Moyer A. The Athlete’s Altered State (Athlete Journal Entry 15) [Internet]. BreakingMuscle. Verfügbar unter: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/the-athletes-altered-state-athlete-journal-entry-15
  12. Meekums B, Karkou V, Nelson EA. Dance movement therapy for depression. Cochrane Common Mental Disorders Group, Herausgeber. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 19. Februar 2015 [zitiert 23. Februar 2021]; Verfügbar unter: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/14651858.CD009895.pub2
  13. de Dreu MJ, van der Wilk ASD, Poppe E, Kwakkel G, van Wegen EEH. Rehabilitation, exercise therapy and music in patients with Parkinson’s disease: a meta-analysis of the effects of music-based movement therapy on walking ability, balance and quality of life. Parkinsonism Relat Disord. Januar 2012;18:S114–9.
  14. Hackney M, Bennett C. Dance therapy for individuals with Parkinson’s disease: improving quality of life. J Park Restless Legs Syndr. Februar 2014;17.
  15. Frembgen JW. DHamāl and the Performing Body: Trance Dance in the Devotional Sufi Practice of Pakistan. J Sufi Stud. 2012;1(1):77–113.
  16. Levine CL. Flow and motivation in male ballet dancers [Internet]. Wright Institute Graduate School of Psychology; 2006 [zitiert 8. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://search.proquest.com/openview/0204c74a04f15cff2ec722da0e12ae79/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
  17. Brupbacher G, c, BSc. Does Music Decrease Overall CrossFit Performance? | BoxLife Magazine [Internet]. [zitiert 9. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://boxlifemagazine.com/music-crossfit-does-it-make-you-or-break-you/
  18. Karageorghis C, Priest D-L. Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I). Int Rev Sport Exerc Psychol. 2011;5(1):44–66.
  19. Jackson SA, Ford SK, Kimiecik JC, Marsh HW. Psychological Correlates of Flow in Sport. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 1. Dezember 1998;20(4):358–78.
  20. Relationships between quality of experience and participation in diverse performance settingshttp://espace.library.uq.edu.au/workflow/edit_metadata.php?id=382160&wfs_id=778 – UQ eSpace [Internet]. [zitiert 8. Oktober 2020]. Verfügbar unter: https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:100134
  21. Markoff, R. A., Ryan, P. A. U. L., & Young, T. (1982). Endorphins and mood changes in long-distance running. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 14(1), 11-15.
  22. Carek, P. J., Laibstain, S. E., & Carek, S. M. (2011). Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety. The international journal of psychiatry in medicine, 41(1), 15-28.
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Psilocybin Chronicles

A Romp Through the Use of Psychoactive Mushrooms in Ancient Culture, Contemporary Research, and Future Therapy
  • Blog
  • Science
  • Essay
  • 7 minutes
January 7, 2021
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Camelia is a graduate of University Lucian Blaga of Sibiu, Romania. She interned with MIND where she worked on the development of the MIND Academy and the Drug Science Program.

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According to mycologist Paul Stamets, the presence of mushrooms is actually a direct index of a healthy and biodynamic ecosystem. Nevertheless, it is also well known that specifically some psilocybin species tend to grow in ‘disturbed’ habitats.2

Have humans consumed neurotropic mushrooms since ancient pre-historic times, or is it a relatively newly developed practice? If the former is true, what role did these altered states of consciousness play in ancient human times? These questions are continuously debated amongst anthropologists, scientists, and ethnomycologists.

Fungi – Mushrooms – Magic Mushrooms?

Before delving into the discussion, it is important to understand the basics of mushroom anatomy, lifespan, and habitat. The term “mushroom” only refers to the fungus’s fruiting body, the one we can observe above-ground with the naked eye. Underneath the surface lies a network of so-called hyphae, long filaments branching of the mushroom body, collectively forming the fungus’s mycelium, which is needed for proliferation and nutrient uptake. Mycelium can be enormous: one of the largest ever found is a single Armillaria bulbosa that stretches across 15 hectares and weighs 10.000 kg. This particular fungus, which was found in the United States, is suspected to be about 1500 years old.1

Interestingly, the presence of mushrooms in a given habitat says a lot about its surrounding ecosystem. According to mycologist Paul Stamets, the presence of mushrooms is actually a direct index of a healthy and biodynamic ecosystem. Nevertheless, it is also well known that specifically some psilocybin species tend to grow in ‘disturbed’ habitats.2

As can be seen, these organisms are truly astonishing. For this reason, fungi of all kinds have fascinated writers, poets, artists, musicians, scientists, and more recently archaeologists and anthropologists.

When talking about psychoactive fungi, two species are most important: On the one hand, species that contain ibotenic acid and, on the other hand, species that contain psilocybin and related indole molecules. Scientists have discovered 209 species until now that fall into these two categories.3 This blog post covers the ins and outs of both these types of psychoactive fungi.

Ancient Human Use of Amanita Muscaria

The first mushroom considered to be the most used in ancient human history to experience an altered state of consciousness is the spectacular red-orange Amanita Muscaria, the ‘fly-agaric’ (Pic. 1). Finnish botanist Harri Nyberg, PhD, argues that the ancient use of the fly-agaric played an important role in the origins of Siberian shamanism.4

fly-agaric mushroom

Picture 1: Amanita Muscaria (Fly-Agaric) Mushroom. Source: Author

 

In western Siberia, ingestion was restricted to shamans. In contrast, in eastern Siberia both shamans and laypeople would use the mushroom religiously and recreationally – entertaining themselves during long and dark Siberian winter nights.4 Indicative of these entheogenic uses of psychoactive mushrooms, archaeologists found fungoid petroglyphs (rock carvings) on large exposed rock formations in the Pegtymel River region in eastern Siberia, which are apparently of shamanistic significance.5

Beyond Siberia, there is also evidence suggesting that Vikings and other civilizations used these fungi.Supposedly, their use gave birth to stories and myths like the one of Santa Claus.7

As the culture around the use of Amanita differed between civilizations, so did the mode of administration. In the 1700s, German botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller proposed that reindeer were likely ingesting the fly-agaric, ultimately rendering their flesh intoxicating when consumed by other animals or humans. Yet, traditionally two other methods of consumption of the fly-agaric are commonly assumed.

Sometimes, the mushroom was consumed as an ointment, typically applied to mucosal membranes like genitalia or the anus with a stick (usually a broomstick – some see this as an analogy to witchery). Alternatively, as unpleasant as it sounds, often people would drink the urine of someone who ate Amanita. In this latter case, the eater was usually a shaman, who would fast for the preceding three days to increase the purity of their urine.8 The purpose of processing the Amanita fungus in this way may have been to increase the psychoactive effects and to minimize toxic side effects for the end consumer. The main alkaloid in fly-agaric is ibotenic acid, which is toxic but only mildly psychoactive. After consumption, ibotenic acid is metabolized to form muscimol, which is readily passed into the urine. Muscimol is much less toxic and is mainly responsible for the psychological effects of Amanita.9

Ancient Use of Psilocybin-containing mushrooms

The Psilocybe genus represents the second broad group of psychoactive mushrooms. In this genus, Psilocybe semilanceata is one of the most commonly used psychoactive mushrooms in Europe today (Pic.2). The earliest unequivocal written evidence for human usage of this mushroom is from the 18thcentury. Namely, in 1799 the chemist Augustus Everard Brande documented Psilocybe semilanceata intoxication in a British family which prepared a meal with mushrooms they picked in London’s Green Park.10 The father and four children experienced typical symptoms associated with ingestion: pupil dilatation, spontaneous laugher, and hallucinations. Based on this rather recent first evidence of consumption, some authors contest the possibility of ancient human use of psilocybin worldwide. However, many also cite archeological findings of cave art to argue that humans did consume psilocybin-containing mushrooms. These artifacts are our main source of information about the potential use of psychoactive plants far back in time.

Psilocybe Semilanceata

Picture 2: Psilocybe Semilanceata. Source: Wikimedia

 

Already in the 1950s, cave art possibly depicting psilocybin-containing mushrooms was discovered at Tassili n’Aijjer, Algeria.5 The Tassili n’Ajjer mountain region in the Algerian part of the Sahara Desert houses is considered the oldest pre-historic evidence for the use of psychotropic mushrooms by humans, dating to 9000-7000 B.C.E. In one of the cave paintings, the humanoid figures are dancing or running and carrying mushrooms connected to their heads, potentially indicating the influence of the psychotropic substances on their minds.11 Some believe that the mushroom portrayed in this Algerian cave art is  Psilocybe mairei, which is known to grow in North Africa.11,12

Another more recent mushroom art piece can be found in one of the reliefs on the bronze doors at the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany. This piece from the Middle Ages depicts a scene in which God reprimands Adam and Eve for eating parts of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Chemist and mycologist Jochen Gartz, PhD, thinks that the tree might be a representation of Psilocybe semilanceata.12

The most recent archaeological discovery of murals containing bulls and fungoid pictographs was in 1918 at Selva Pascuala, Spain (Pic. 4). This joint presentation of bulls and fungi is considered to be related to the manure habitat of some coprophilic (growing in dung or fecal matter) species of thePsilocybe genus. The paintings have been linked to the Spanish Levantine culture, which is known for its magical and ritual depictions, and some speculate that Psilocybe hispanica is the species depicted in these pictographs.5

Fungoid Pictographs at Selva Pascuala, Spain

Picture 3: Fungoid Pictographs at Selva Pascuala, Spain

 

It is believed that up to 20 different Psilocybe species were used in rituals in Mexico,11 which were often depicted in ceramic sculptures, leaving us an artistic legacy to admire. Most of these artifacts originate from what is nowadays Northwest Mexico and date back to the classic and pre-classic Mayan era more than 2000 years ago.13,14

Even in Ancient Greece, humans are suspected of having ingested psilocybin mushrooms. For instance, it is known that the participants of the secretive Eleusinian rites were using mind-altering substances.12,15 However, it is still not determined whether they actually used psilocybin-containing mushrooms. In support of the hypothesis that they did, archaeologists found clues in Farsala in a relief carving dating back to the 5th century BC.15 The carving depicts two Eleusian goddesses holding mushrooms which, according to some historians, may be either Claviceps purpurea17 or of a Psilocybespecies.12

The many discoveries of apparently mushroom-depicting art lend some support to theories on pre-historic use of psychotropic fungi in many regions. But did pre-historic humans in all these regions of the world actually seek out ways to alter their minds – and if yes, why? These are questions that yet remain unanswered.

The Two Big Renaissance Movements

If psilocybin consumption was as widespread and dates back as far as the cave-art seems to indicate, an astonishingly large gap of usage occurred in human history. Mycologist Paul Stamets and anthropologist Jerry Brown, PhD, author of “Psychedelic Gospels,” both argue that the spread of Christianity in Europe and the Black Plague played a role in this gap in history.2,18

They state that since the bible advises its followers to be sober-minded and watchful to be considered good Christians, ingesting mushrooms for the purpose of experiencing God was not embraced by the Church. The inquisition, with the purpose to combat heresy, may have been the tool for stopping mind-altering substance use.18

However, we do not know whether people in Christianized regions actually used psychoactive mushrooms. Moreover, even if they did, the spread of Christianity and the period of Inquisition alone may not sufficiently explain the cessation of psychoactive mushroom use.

The First Renaissance

In 1938, the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes observed a mushroom ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico.19Subsequently, he published a leaflet describing his observation for the Harvard University Botanical Museum. Following this, one of the first outsiders who took part in such a ceremony was R. Gordon Wasson20, a mycologist who traveled to Central Mexico to meet the shaman Maria Sabina in 1955. Wasson’s experience and reports about it arguably played a key role in popularizing psychoactive mushrooms in the US.

The next phase of the first renaissance of psilocybin use was catalyzed by the hippie movement in the US, starting in the early 1960s, which eventually spread around the world. The core of the movement focused around harmony with nature, communal living, artistic experimentation, and the widespread use of recreational substances – psilocybin mushrooms being only one of them. In parallel, there was a first wave of scientific research into the effects of psychoactive mushrooms. However, by the end of the decade, psychedelic drugs were illegalized and research on them was effectively halted.

The Second Renaissance

The second renaissance of psychedelic research is taking place right now and is focused on the medicalization and, in some places, on the decriminalization of psilocybin. Scientists are now revitalizing the research that had ceased at the end of the first renaissance.

The problems faced by previous scientists still come up today – due to psilocybin’s legal status, researchers must clear a number of regulatory hurdles to acquire official approval for studies on psilocybin. Many governmental authorities have only become more open to such research in recent years – perhaps in part, because organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Heffter Research Institute, and the more recently founded MIND Foundation are pushing and conducting this research.

Psilocybin is investigated for a plethora of mental health conditions and popular science books, like the well-known “How to Change Your Mind” by Michael Pollan, highlight the potential of such substances. This sparks optimism about the future medical use of psychedelic drugs. In parallel, psychedelic festivals, popping up fruitfully like mushrooms after rainfall, are experiencing a boom in popularity.

Hopefully, we are now in the purgatory between prohibition and a future in which psychedelic substances may be approached ethically and rationally, with the wisdom of the past in mind. It is only with this approach that our present decisions can shape a future that serves us all.

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References
  1. Smith M, Bruhn J, Anderson J. 1992. The fungus Armillaria bulbosa is among the largest and oldest living organisms. Nature. 356(6368):428-431.
  2. Stamets, P. 1996. Psilocybin mushrooms of the world: An identification guide. Berkeley, Calif: Ten Speed Press.
  3. Gastón Guzmán, John W. Allen, Jochen Gartz. A worldwide geographical distribution of the neurotropic fungi, an analysis and discussion. 14(1998):189-280.
  4. Nyberg H. 1992. Religious use of hallucinogenic fungi: A comparison between Siberian and Mesoamerican cultures. Karstenia. 32(1):71-80.
  5. Akers, B.P., Ruiz, J.F., Piper, A. et al. 2011. A Prehistoric Mural in Spain Depicting Neurotropic Psilocybe Mushrooms? Econ Bot. 65:121–128
  6. Ödmann S. 1784. Försök at utur Naturens Historia förklara de nordiska gamla Kämpars Berserka-gang (An attempt to Explain the Berserk-raging of Ancient Nordic Warriors through Natural History). Kongliga Vetenskaps Academiens nya Handlingar 5: 240–247 (In: Wasson, 1968)
  7. Rush, J. A. 2011. The mushroom in Christian art: The identity of Jesus in the development of Christianity. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  8. Hoffmann, D. 2003. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.
  9. Lee MR, Dukan E, Milne I. 2012. Amanita muscaria (fly agaric): from a shamanistic hallucinogen to the search for acetylcholine. J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 48(1):85-91
  10. Brande E. 1799.  “Mr. E. Brande, on a poisonous species of Agaric”. The Medical and Physical Journal. 3(11): 41–44
  11. Guzmán, G. 2008. Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in Mexico: An Overview. Econ Bot. 62, 404–412.
  12. Gartz J, Taake C. 1996. Magic mushrooms around the world. Los Angeles [Ca]: LIS Publications.
  13. Borhegyi S. 1961. Miniature Mushroom Stones from Guatemala. American Antiquity. 26(4):498-504
  14. Furst PT. 1974. Hallucinogens in Precolumbian art. In M. E. King & I. R. Traylor (Eds.), Art and environment in native America (pp. 50–101). Lubbock, TX: Museum of Texas Technological University.
  15. Bizzotto J. Aug 2018. The hypothesis on the presence of entheogens in the Eleusinian Mysteries. 30;2(2):109-10.
  16. Froese T, Guzmán G, Guzmán-Dávalos L. 2016. On the Origin of the Genus Psilocybe and Its Potential Ritual Use in Ancient Africa and Europe. Economic Botany. 70(2):103-114.
  17. Wasson RG, Hofmann A, Ruck CAP. 1978. The Road to Eleusis. Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 126
  18. Interview Jerry Brown, PhD. Dec 2017. https://psychedelictimes.com/the-secret-psychedelic-mushroom-initiations-of-early-christianity-interview-with-jerry-brown/
  19. Schultes RE, Hofmann A, Rätsch, C. 2001. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rev. and expanded ed., Healing Arts Press.
  20. Wasson, R. Gordon. 1976. Maria Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada. New York: Harcourt.
  psychedelic industry treated

The Berlin Registry

An Overview of the Psychedelic Industry
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  • 4 minutes
November 13, 2020
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MIND RKE Associate

Camile Bahi is a Neuroscience M.Sc. student at VU Amsterdam, Netherlands. He holds an M.Pharm (Industry field, research track) from Université de Franche-Comté, France.

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After half a century, psychedelic drugs are inching in from the cold.

Magic mushrooms [psilocybin] are in the vanguard…

— The Economist, June 2019

This article provides an interactive and regularly updated overview of companies that are entering the psychedelic market: The Berlin Registry of the Psychedelic Industry.

Go straight to the Berlin Registry’s Map below, or scroll down to read more about the Registry, why we made it, and how to use it. We hope you can learn something about the growing psychedelic industry.

About the Berlin Registry

Psychedelic research has the attention of the scientific community once more. Treatments with psychedelic substances like psilocybin have shown promising results in high-quality studies aiming to assess their efficacy in treating mental health disorders, such as depression or cancer-related distress. Psilocybin for depression has even received the “breakthrough therapy” status from the American FDA(1,2). This builds on the finding that those psychedelics used in clinical studies have a favorable safety profile: they are some of the safest known drugs to target the central nervous system(3).

Over the last few years, a number of companies and organizations have been founded to develop or build on different aspects of the psychedelic field. The so-called psychedelic industry is still in its infancy. Yet there has been an increasing number of spectacular capitalization events, with companies raising $80 million and more in their first or second financing rounds. This page provides people looking for information or investment and donation opportunities with a basic overview about the emerging psychedelic economy – both for-profit and non-profit.

The Roots of Psychedelic Industry

Psychedelics stricto sensu, characterized by their 5-HT2AR agonist properties, have been present in naturally occurring plants since prehistoric times. They have been used by various cultures around the world.

Following the discovery of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) by Albert Hofmann in 1943, psychedelic compounds began to receive growing interest from the scientific community. Hoffman’s employer, Sandoz Laboratories – manufacturing psilocybin and LSD from 1960 onwards – decided to submit these substances to clinical research for diverse applications. The lack of a rigorous scientific framework in many of these trials, as well as misuse of these substances by parts of the “beat generation” and some youth cultures in the 1960ties, eventually caused an almost complete cessation of psychedelic research and therapy between 1971 and the late 90s (4,5). In 1971, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances categorized psychedelics as Schedule I drugs (4,5). Current research challenges this historical assessment to its core, and it will likely result in re-scheduling some psychedelics for medical treatment in the coming years. Many of the companies in the Berlin Registry are banking on this outlook.

How to Use the Berlin Registry

Since 2016, the number of psychedelics-related companies has exponentially increased. It has become arduous to get an accurate view of which companies are currently involved in the psychedelic industry and what has been undertaken to develop this field. In order to provide an overview, the MIND Foundation has taken the initiative to present regularly updated details about each company that is currently active in the psychedelic field. This is not an in-depth analysis of these companies’ work or economic value, but a starting point for those who want to perform such analysis.

The Berlin Registry takes the form of an interactive map, which makes it possible to access basic information about a particular company by either clicking its name in the directory or using the search field. It will then display the company’s location on the map, as well as a list of details when you scroll down. These details are structured into subcategories that are relevant to our original endeavor.

Firstly, the companies are divided into two categories: for-profit and non-profit, important information about the legal status of a given company. Then, to connect a company with its actors and framework, the names of its founders are provided when available, as well as the date of founding, the country of establishment, and location of its main headquarters. All of these fields are searchable. Whether the company owns any subsidiary company is also specified, providing a general idea of the connections that exist between companies. However, since this information may evolve regularly – and is also subject to intentional concealment – the database does not guarantee an exhaustive answer.

To provide a clearer overview of the ongoing activities each company undertakes, we use the following categories:

R&D: Specifies if the company has undertaken research and development in order to put a substance on the market. This includes drug discovery, formulation development, and any industrial activity.

Substance(s): Lists the compounds a company is working on or planning to work on, according to its website.

Academic Research: Specifies whether a company is involved in ongoing academic research. This means that the company or a partner institution has published at least one peer reviewed

Partnership: Details the partnerships a company claims to have developed with other institutions, according to its website.

Ongoing clinical trials: Specifies whether the company is conducting any clinical trials on psychedelic substances.

Establishing or operating treatment systems: Specifies whether the company intends to build treatment structures such as clinics, treatment centers, or hospitals.

Retreats or human development: Provides information about services a company could provide that would be related to human development.

Investment Company: Specifies whether the company is investing in the psychedelic industry by acquiring or founding new companies related to the field.

Projects: Provides details about a company’s ongoing or planned projects, according to its website. This includes the status of the project, the type of project, and the starting year, if applicable.

 

If your company is involved in the psychedelic field and you feel that you should appear in this registry, or if you want to provide further information about your company, please fill out this form or send us an e-mail at [email protected].

 

Last updated: November 13th, 2020

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If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References
  1. Bahi C. Psilocybin based therapy for cancer related distress, a systematic review and meta analysis. ArXiv191005176 Q-Bio [Internet]. 2019 Oct 10 [cited 2019 Oct 14]; Available from: http://arxiv.org/abs/1910.05176
  2. Muttoni S, Ardissino M, John C. Classical psychedelics for the treatment of depression and anxiety: A systematic review. J Affect Disord. 2019 Nov;258:11–24.
  3. Nichols DE. Psychedelics. Pharmacol Rev. 2016 Apr;68(2):264–355.
  4. Rucker JJH, Iliff J, Nutt DJ. Psychiatry & the psychedelic drugs. Past, present & future. Neuropharmacology. 2018 Nov;142:200–18.
  5. erowid. Erowid Psilocybin Mushrooms Vault: Timeline [Internet]. [cited 2019 Oct 14]. Available from: https://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_timeline.php#ref_6
 blogs_treated_edge (1)  blogs_treated_edge (1)

EDGE

On the Dialogue Between Art and Neuroscience
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October 9, 2020
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Non-profit association

EDGE is a Berlin-based registered non-profit association. This post was written by the four core members: Tatiana Luphasina, Amelia Young, Corinna Kühnapfel, and Ian Erik Stewart

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Whether incidental or decisive, art in neuroscience is a tool for educating and inspiring, communicating and sharing, for artists and neuroscientists alike.

At the MIND Foundation’s Symposium “Progress on Bewusstseinskultur,” as well as the recent Members’ Convention, guests may have noticed various artworks in MIND’s new office space in Berlin Friedrichshain. Both in-person and online attendees also got to experience a meditative light and sound performance by OATS collective. In this blog post, we would like to share with you the motivation and story behind these, as well as our other work as EDGE.

EDGE came to life three years ago in Berlin, when all of us were pursuing neuroscience degrees (in neurobiology, medical neuroscience, and cognitive science). We soon realised that many of our fellow students were also talented artists, with no fitting platform to express themselves. “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” Albert Einstein once said. We believed that the study of the brain and all the beauty that neuroscience research produces is worth sharing.

Soon we decided to curate an exhibition, held in July 2018 at >topLab in the heart of Neukölln, Berlin, accompanied by tours, talks, and Q&As with the artists. We considered the exhibition an excellent way to communicate scientific knowledge in an alternative style, to provide insight into the scientific process, and to humanise and individualise researchers in the eyes of the public. For four days, we displayed a dense variety of works: a dance performance, photography in both black & white and colour, water-colour and oil paintings, projections, a sound-scape, a hologram, graphite sketches, light-boxes, and more. Scientific themes were evident in many pieces, with microscopy images, magnified blow-ups of biological tissue, and lab equipment—but there was also a lot that was personal and human in the works on display. Many depicted friends and colleagues at work, while others showed the human side of clinical neuroscience in artworks on mental diversity. Given the chance to express this through art, we opened up a space for communication between artists and visitors. What do the artists want to convey about neuroscience? Who are they? Why do they do research on? What is that like? What do they find beautiful about it?

During this exhibition, we received a lot of positive feedback from our fellow students about the chance to build on their creative expressions and connect with like-minded individuals. We had planted a seed: a demand for a community interested in the intersection of art and neuroscience, neuroscience communication, and the beauty of the brain. Thus, we continued and expanded the activities of the project. In 2019, we held our first workshop in our new series on “Neuroscience and Creativity” with the goal to evoke constructive synergies between artists and scientists, to share practical and conceptual knowledge, and to generate public outreach from academia. We are convinced that such an exchange of approaches and methods may benefit both the artistically and scientifically creative mind.

Later that year, we hosted our second summer exhibition. This time we set up an open call for artists, and we soon noticed how many artists out there are inspired by research in neuroscience, biology, and psychology. Their artworks depicted different topics in neuroscience, such as memory, mindfulness, and neurological diversity, and they even used neuroimaging techniques like EEG for interactive performances. For many of them art, too, is research: Artists are investigating similar questions to scientists and are also trying to understand themselves and the world around them. Art asks questions: how to communicate and conceptualise topics, and how to experience them.

Our exhibition travelled across two locations: the foyer of the CCO, Charité’s research facility in Berlin Mitte, and a decommissioned power plant in Berlin Steglitz. These contrasting locations attracted people from different fields and recontextualised the works for new perspectives. What emerged was new access to typically secluded neuroscientific work. Artist and neuroscientist Dr. Mateusz Ambrozkiewicz said, “I think this project offers deep insight into the work of a neuroscientist, explains the concept of developmental diseases, and attracts people to promote discussions and thought.” He continued: “I am thrilled that I can present my work in a different medium, reach a varied audience, and explain why basic research is of invaluable benefit to humankind.”1

This summer we also established our collaboration with the MIND Foundation. In the visual arts exhibition accompanying the INSIGHT conference 2019, we curated video installations and paintings (examples can be found on pages 30-34 in the conference report). One year later, we had the great opportunity to decorate MIND’s new office space in Berlin-Friedrichshain with artworks by eight different artists just before the start of the MIND Symposium on “Progress in Bewusstseinskultur.”2 The day was accompanied by an arts performance from OATS collective Amsterdam, offering a direct experience of the connection between art and consciousness.

Ever since, we have solidified our mission: to initiate interdisciplinary collaborations between artists and neuroscientists, to facilitate sharing contemporary conceptual and practical knowledge, to support the completion of art projects, and to give artists a platform for exhibitions in Berlin and beyond. We hope that members of the public who come to our exhibitions learn about neuroscience in an interactive way in order to enrich public knowledge and make science relatable. Furthermore, we want to offer scientists and research institutes a way to reach out and communicate their insights in an approachable way. We hope that this dialogue between artists and scientists will continue to form a community of individuals across disciplines to discuss and collaborate, combining perspectives to create works for the public good.

At this point, we are delighted to announce that this year, the MIND Foundation will host us for the first part of our 2020 multimedia exhibition. For four days (October 15-18), we will welcome the neuro-curious to this interdisciplinary showcase of the beauty of the brain by international artists and neuroscientists. People can book two-hour long time slots to comply with COVID-19 safety measures (tickets are available here).

Find some pictures from the exhibition here:

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References

  1. Vingill S. Cutting EDGE Neuroscience. Phenotype (34). 2019-2020; Art-Science Crossover: 36. Available from: https://ouphenotypejournal.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/phenotype_issue34_mt19xht20.pdf
  2. Artists whose works are featured in the MIND office: Eva Romero, Christian Ebner, Bikmurzina Nailya, Taylor Smith, Maria Camila Zapata Fernandez, Geinene Carson, Virgilio Vogels, Tamari Ghelaghutashvili
 culture set and setting filtered  culture set and setting filtered

Cultural Context and the Psychedelic Experience 

A call to expand linguistic diversity in psychedelic research 
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August 12, 2020
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Postdoctoral Fellow

Sandeep Nayak, MD, is a psychiatrist and postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

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Not only does set and setting encompass the participant’s personality, emotional state, and physical environment, it also entails the cultural context and “prevailing views as to what is real.”

Psychedelic research has a problem of diversity that has been widely discussed1,2: Research largely takes place in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)3 nations. This acronym has been used to draw attention to the overrepresentation in psychological research of a fraction of humanity that is an outlier in many respects. WEIRD subjects have different notions of moral reasoning, spatial cognition, individualism, and even visual and olfactory perception3,4. Moreover, the population in psychedelic studies skews white (82% as of 2018) and affluent5. This is concerning for a number of reasons. One is simply a lack of accessibility. Many who might benefit from participation in psychedelic trials are not able to participate. This has effects on the generalizability of research. Should psychedelics become clinically available, there may be unforeseen pitfalls to this lack of diversity.

Also, there is evidence from the psychotherapy literature that different therapists have different degrees of effectiveness across racial and ethnic groups6-8. So far, it is unclear to what extent this might be true with psychedelic therapy. Facilitators in psychedelic studies are not a very diverse group, and this may or may not be of consequence when it comes to therapeutic effectiveness. In recognition of this, the organization MAPS, for their MDMA studies, has initiated training specifically for therapists of color.

It is also possible that different racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups have different types of psychedelic experiences. The impact of set and setting is now a truism in discussions about the psychedelic experience, though it is worth unpacking the implications of that truism. Not only does set and setting encompass the participant’s personality, emotional state, and physical environment, it also entails the cultural context and “prevailing views as to what is real9.”

For instance, early experiments with peyote noted significant variation in effects between whites and American Indians. “The responses described in clinical experiments on Whites are so different from the responses described by Indian Peyotists […] as to fall into completely different categories. They do not seem to be talking about the same thing10.” In this era, white participants who took peyote in a research setting had experiences characterized by suspiciousness, feelings of meaninglessness and distress, “hallucinations largely idiosyncratic in content”, and a general lack of therapeutic benefits. In contrast, American Indian peyotists generally took the cactus in a ceremonial setting, with a presumption of a meaningful, beneficial experience and had therapeutic benefits and “welcome feelings of contact with a new, more meaningful […] reality prefigured in doctrinal knowledge11.” The culturally patterned meaning of a psychedelic experience may be important in the content and effects of psychedelics.

Hence, the critical questions in psychedelic research are: what is drug, what is context, and how do these two interact? These questions are grounded in a powerful sociology of science that frames our viewpoints. Erich Studerus, a Swiss psychedelic researcher interviewed in Nicolas Langlitz’s book Neuropsychedelia, critiques the common view that psychedelic effects are almost entirely attributable to set and setting12. He notes that this idea recapitulates a dualist prejudice of mind over matter that is particularly popular among psychedelic enthusiasts and that it elevates psychology over pharmacology12. The idea that set and setting entirely dictate psychedelic effects may be an extreme, but there is also an opposite extreme. Namely, the assumption, baked into the design of modern clinical trials, that for the therapeutic outcome the active drug effect is primary and can be successfully separated from contextual factors by a placebo comparison. The middle way requires navigating a complex mixture of effects that cannot be neatly decomposed into perfect ratios of drug and context. The drug response has to be assessed in a variety of contexts and with a variety of methods.

Understanding the nature of the relationship between drug and context is the essential question, and assessing the effects of diverse cultural contexts is one way of getting at this. However, design considerations for clinical trials and longstanding barriers to increase the diversity of participants mean this may take some time. I have mentioned that most psychedelic research takes place in WEIRD countries and on top of this–and at least in the US–white people are far more likely to use psychedelics than any other ethnoracial group13. However, there is low-hanging fruit. Online surveys that can target anyone are ubiquitous in psychedelic research. Our group has done surveys on God- and entity-encounter experiences, mystical and insight experiences, and many more. The psychedelic research center at Imperial College’s Centre for Psychedelic Research is also engaged in several online surveys, including prospective surveys about ceremonial psychedelic use and microdosing. There is no substantive reason why these cannot be done in multiple languages. For example, the afterglow survey through the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin is available in German and English.

Such surveys could greatly inform the relationship between cultural context and psychedelic experience. There are some barriers though. Properly translating surveys would require greater collaboration between people and institutions with expertise in the relevant languages. To date, many of the most commonly used psychedelic questionnaires are not validated in other languages. This is a limitation to not only survey research but also clinical research down the line. To this end, and in collaboration with researchers from Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and Imperial College, our group is involved in a survey of native Spanish speakers about psychedelic experiences with a goal to validate many of the most commonly used surveys in psychedelic research.

Besides gaining scientific knowledge, there is another real benefit to this kind of work. The revolution in public support for psychedelic research in the Anglosphere has been astounding. This would not have been possible without the efforts of researchers and the discussions this research has generated in society. Thus, psychedelic research forms part of a dialogue with larger society. In many ways, negative attitudes towards psychedelics remain the biggest challenge to the progress of this research. Funding restrictions and other regulatory difficulties reflect these attitudes but are also changed by them.

More specifically, psychedelic research is a kind of conversation with the community of psychedelic users. Unlike clinical research for most drugs, psychedelics have an opinionated community of users from whom science can learn a great deal. Psychedelic users’ willingness to participate in research is a huge boon for advancing this field, but it should not be taken for granted. While this goodwill may be built up in the US and Western Europe, it may not be the case everywhere. Recruitment for our Spanish survey has at times been met with understandable suspicion and skepticism. Promoting research requires justifying the value and intentions behind the research. Trust has to be earned, and I view the project of expanding psychedelic surveys into other languages as one step in attempting this.

My hope is that more online surveys are translated and released simultaneously in multiple languages. This would require more international collaboration across the world of psychedelic research which I would welcome. In the meantime, you can contribute to promoting psychedelic research by taking and disseminating our Spanish psychedelic survey.

Our work at MIND relies on donations from people like you.

If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

View More
References
  1. Yin S. How researchers and advocates of color are forging their own paths in psychedelic-assisted therapy [Internet]. WHYY. 2020 [cited 18 July 2020]. Available from: https://whyy.org/segments/researchers-advocates-of-color-are-forging-their-own-paths-in-psychedelic-assisted-therapy/
  2. Watson E. Okayplayer: Black Americans Are Building A Space In Psychedelic Drug Culture After Being Ignored For Decades – MAPS [Internet]. MAPS. 2020 [cited 18 July 2020]. Available from: https://maps.org/news/media/7541-okayplayer-black-americans-are-building-a-space-in-psychedelic-drug-culture-after-being-ignored-for-decades
  3. Henrich J, Heine S, Norenzayan A. The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2010;33(2-3):61-83.
  4. Sorokowska A, Sorokowski P, Hummel T, Huanca T. Olfaction and Environment: Tsimane’ of Bolivian Rainforest Have Lower Threshold of Odor Detection Than Industrialized German People. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(7):e69203.
  5. Michaels T, Purdon J, Collins A, Williams M. Inclusion of people of color in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: a review of the literature. BMC Psychiatry. 2018;18(1).1.
  6. Imel Z, Baldwin S, Atkins D, Owen J, Baardseth T, Wampold B. Racial/ethnic disparities in therapist effectiveness: A conceptualization and initial study of cultural competence. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 2011;58(3):290-298.
  7. Larrison C, Schoppelrey S, Hack-Ritzo S, Korr W. Clinician Factors Related to Outcome Differences Between Black and White Patients at CMHCs. Psychiatric Services. 2011;62(5):525-531.
  8. Hayes J, Owen J, Bieschke K. Therapist differences in symptom change with racial/ethnic minority clients. Psychotherapy. 2015;52(3):308-314.
  9. Leary T, Metzner R, Ram Dass. The psychedelic experience. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books; 1971.
  10. Slotkin J. The peyote religion. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press; 1956.
  11. Wallace A. Cultural Determinants of Response to Hallucinatory Experience. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1959;1(1):58.
  12. Langlitz N. Neuropsychedelia. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2013.
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2018). National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2018 (NSDUH-2018-DS0001). Retrieved from https://datafiles.samhsa.gov/
 language psychedelic research filter  language psychedelic research filter

Schedule 1 Drugs or Breakthrough Therapies?

Reflections on the role of language in psychedelic research

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February 28, 2019
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Ph.D. Candidate

Marco Aqil is a Ph.D. candidate at the Spinoza Centre for Neuroimaging in Amsterdam.

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“Trasumanar significar per verba non si porìa; però l’essemplo basti a cui esperïenza grazia serba.”

Paradiso I, 70-72 


Recently C.J. Büche wrote an in-depth analysis of the role of particular representations of psychedelics in popular media in the “psychedelic renaissance”1. In addition to his work, different ways of describing psychedelics can also be examined in scientific discourse. Paying attention to language choices may offer significant insight into the cultural and personal assumptions of the authors. With due exceptions: in some cases, researchers may have been constrained by funding agencies and ethical committees to describe psychedelics in negative terms, regardless of their own convictions, as a precondition to carry out and publish their studies.

Much like in general media, a variety of contrasting descriptions of psychedelics can be found in scientific media. At least three kinds of language can be identified: in the first, psychedelics are described as with no medical utility and high potential for abuse (“Schedule 1” drugs in all respects)2. In the second , they are considered potentially key to a better understanding of brain function3 and breakthrough treatments4 for otherwise untreatable psychiatric conditions. In the third kind of language, psychedelics are described only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs”5, and considered medically useful in the study of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. This subdivision is of course a simplification to some degree: the same authors may use different language in different papers, and “mixed” accounts are also possible.

Schedule 1 Drugs

The first kind of language, summarized by the statement that psychedelics are drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical utility, has little to no scientific basis6. This stigmatized view of psychedelics can be traced back to a political heritage of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act and the subsequent War on Drugs, and is rapidly disappearing from scientific publications in light of more recent and more rigorous evidence. Nonetheless, it is important to note that:

1) Contemporary clinical trials have been carried out with small sample sizes, highly restrictive screening processes, under constant professional medical supervision, and not always with the possibility of a fully double-blind placebo condition7. All these factors may have contributed to their success. This is not to diminish the impressive results of these rigorous and difficult studies (particularly in treatment-resistant populations); but rather to suggest avoiding hasty conclusions, such as that psychedelics may be risk-free panaceas for any and all psychiatric disorders.

2) While there is evidence that at the population level, the risks of psychedelics have been overstated8, there is no conclusive evidence for the safety of psychedelics at the individual level, and particularly little understanding of persisting effects such as HPPD9. Non-professional “therapeutic” practices involving the use of psychedelics outside clinical settings therefore present a significant amount of risk. This risk is potentially higher than with recreational use, not only because of the high variance in subjective and environmental factors already intrinsic in psychedelic experiences, but particularly because these practices target populations with potentially unaddressed neurobiological issues and high psychological sensitivity.

Tools and Medicines

The second kind of language, which describes psychedelics as useful medicines and important tools for scientific research, (re-)emerged recently with the contemporary and less politically-constrained wave of psychedelic research led by groups at Imperial College London and Johns Hopkins University, among others. The term “psychedelic renaissance” commonly refers to these lines of research, whose merits are many, undeniable, and documented extensively elsewhere10. In this context, it is worthwhile only to remark that some of these studies may also be criticized for using culturally specific terms (e.g. “mystical experiences”, “ego-dissolution”) under the implicit assumption that they reflect somewhat universal or biologically-grounded phenomena, which need not be the case.

For example, non-western cultures using psychedelics may lack the concept of a contemplative “mystical experience”, or the dualistic views of subject/object and internal/external implied by “ego-dissolution”. Therefore, they might experience and interpret the same neurological phenomena according to an entirely different ontology. Influential cognitive theories, such as predictive coding, indeed suggest that cultural and personal expectations (as well as language itself11) should powerfully shape the content and interpretation of psychedelic experiences, in agreement with a long history of observations12.

Models of Schizophrenia-Like Psychosis

The third kind of language is particularly interesting, because it has been and still is quite widespread, despite raising a host of scientific and philosophical questions of its own. Does it make sense to characterize psychedelics only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs”? Is their psychiatric utility only or mainly to be found as models of “schizophrenia-like psychosis”5?

The canonical definition of psychosis is based on hallucinations, aberrant salience, and delusional beliefs, and appears water-tight in identifying pathological cases. However, it is only so because it relies on a specific, shared set of beliefs and assumptions. Language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as “psychosis-inducing drugs” cannot be fully justified empirically, but instead has to rely on a very specific a priori judgement about the content of psychedelic experiences, as well as unstated assumptions about what constitutes real, how much of it is socially constructed, and importantly in this context, how much of it is accessible through language.

These questions have been the subject of intense philosophical debate for millennia, but are glanced over in some scientific papers using this kind of language. “Reality” is implicitly assumed to be deterministic, mechanistic, and fully encompassed by analytic language and mathematical laws: a worldview still prevalent in life sciences today, inherited from 19th-century physical sciences. However, even physical sciences have long since moved away from this view: Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle, like modern Pillars of Hercules, pose fundamental limits to the systematically knowable reality. Furthermore, the social sciences inform us that much of what we commonly refer to as “real”, or at least acceptable, is determined by societal consensus, not by scientific examination. The humanities posit that language itself, let alone reality, has countless possible interpretations (with the escape of pragmatism: not all interpretations are equally useful).

The definition of psychosis is therefore at least as much culturally and socially determined as it is scientific. Psychedelic experiences, too, are heavily influenced by culture, both in their content and its interpretation. This suggests that particularly in scientific papers regarding psychedelics, all assumptions (e.g. what constitutes “real”, how much of it can be conveyed through language) and constructs (e.g. “psychosis”, “mystical experience”) should not be taken for granted as if they were empirically determined scientific facts, but rather carefully examined to avoid potential confounds.

Is the psychiatric utility of psychedelics only or mainly to be found in modeling “schizophrenia-like psychosis”? At first glance, psychedelic experiences can indeed share common features of schizophrenic psychoses: hallucinations, mania, paranoia. However, research shows that there is no straightforward link between any substance model and schizophrenia13. From a metacognitive viewpoint, after taking psychedelics, most people maintain a sense of the induced experience being somehow different from the ordinary reality of everyday life (note that both may be experienced as “real”, but real in different ways)14. Some schizophrenic patients do exhibit such a “double bookkeeping” pattern, or the ability to distinguish between the ordinary and hallucinatory realities they experience. But this is not true in all cases: in “single-bookkeeping” schizophrenic psychoses, hallucinations and ordinary reality are not distinguishable, and both are automatically taken at face value. In such cases, other substance classes, for example anticholinergic hallucinogens15, would provide a more accurate model. Furthermore, auditory verbal hallucinations, an important hallmark of schizophrenic psychoses16, are not a prominent feature of psychedelic experiences. Once again, a different class of substances (amphetamines) and modality of use (chronic rather than acute) may provide a more suitable model17.

A fortiori, the evidence showing long-term, population-level positive effects of psychedelics on suicidality and mental distress18, as well as the recent clinical trials on depression in terminally ill cancer patients19, clearly show that the psychiatric utility of psychedelics goes far beyond modeling psychosis6. Even if the premise is accepted that psychedelics are only or mainly “psychosis-inducing drugs”, one would have to concoct a convincing explanation for why inducing a “schizophrenia-like psychosis” turns out to be a positive choice for mental health, both at the statistical level in the general population and in medically controlled clinical trials. The available scientific evidence therefore suggests that there is more to psychosis (and even more so to complex psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia) than psychedelics can teach us about it; and vice versa, there is far more to psychedelics than what they can teach us about psychoses and psychotic disorders.

The conclusion seems warranted that language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as drugs inducing “schizophrenia-like psychosis”, or suggesting any straightforward relation between the two, is at best a limited account, at worst misleading, and based upon unstated and questionable assumptions. For completeness, it is worth remarking that a similar line of criticism could be raised against language characterizing psychedelics only or mainly as “mystical-experience-inducing drugs” or “ego-dissolving drugs”; but this has not been the case in any serious scientific publication to date, hence why the criticism here was directed specifically towards the language of “psychosis-inducing drugs”. The same goes for any other attempt to oversimplify these complex phenomena and reduce them to a single aspect without taking potential cultural and linguistic confounds into account.

Language and Mechanisms: the Ineffable Medicine

For sake of brevity, let’s not discuss the languages of “unifying” theories of psychedelic effects20, which ultimately require a unified theory of conscious experience, an incredibly interesting but extremely difficult task for all the obvious reasons. There is no consensus in the scientific community when it comes to the specific mechanisms that should mediate the potential benefits of psychedelics for psychiatric conditions. Some researchers propose that they are due to reduced inflammation21, others to increased neuroplasticity22, others again (among which the key groups of the psychedelic renaissance) suggest that reaching an ineffable “mystical experience”19 or “ego-dissolving”23 psychological state is actually the crucial factor in the therapeutic process. Back to language again: “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao”. This age-old remark becomes relevant again in the context of psychedelic research. What is the most appropriate language to scientifically study experiences for which perhaps the most common subjective report is that the experience itself lies “beyond” or “outside” of language? Is there anything at all we can say about such ineffable concepts and experiences24?

The emerging picture is fascinatingly complex and far from settled. In the future, language choices will play a crucial role25, as they can build both bridges and walls between (apparently) contrasting theories. Psychedelics seem to resist all attempts at simplistic, systematic, complete characterization: even the most widely accepted neurophysiological mechanism of action (agonism at the 5HT-2A receptor26) does not directly explain why substances with entirely different receptor affinity profiles can have highly overlapping effects with those of psychedelics, for example Salvinorin A27, a kappa-opioid receptor agonist and the active compound in the plant Salvia Divinorum; or ketamine, an NMDA-receptor antagonist with hallucinogenic properties at specific doses28, capable also of increasing neuroplasticity22 and showing great promise in the treatment of depression29. Furthermore, the downstream effects of functional selectivity at the 5HT-2A receptor are still being worked out30, and recent analyses31 show that affinities for muscarinic and opioid receptors may also be relevant for predicting the reported subjective effects. These difficulties might discourage the scientific study of psychedelics, but seen in a different light, they greatly increase the potential contributions of these substances to science and medicine.

In conclusion, these reflections suggest a few general points that, if implicitly understood and explicitly implemented, might be useful to productively move forward in the field of psychedelic research:

  1. All assumptions and constructs should be double-checked with particular care to diminish cultural and linguistic confounds.
  2. Different scientific descriptions may be valid at the same time, although differing in scope and degree of supporting evidence.
  3. Theories should be treated as models and perspectives rather than complete and definitive explanations.

Psychedelic research is already stretching the boundaries of scientific language and methods. One might speculate that a paradigm shift in the way we view the relationship between brain processes and subjective experiences will be necessary in order to obtain a fully satisfactory, naturalistic account of these remarkable phenomena.

Or perhaps even that won’t do.

This article was first published on the APRA blog.

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If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References

1. Büche CJ. The De-Politicisation of Psychedelics [Internet] [Master’s Thesis]. [London]: University College London; 2018 [cited 2019 Jan 30]. Available from: https://medium.com/@celestinjohannesbche/the-de-politicisation-of-psychedelics-bf89d280c9ef?fbclid=IwAR0UmOuaWSD-JkOcxKw0DM83kAxZh1n_8h98VGT82qsODMWIw9oinyA2l7I

2. Hu Q-D, Xu L-L, Gong Y, Wu G-H, Wang Y-W, Wu S-J, et al. Lysergic acid diethylamide causes photoreceptor cell damage through inducing inflammatory response and oxidative stress. Cutan Ocul Toxicol. 2018 Sep;37(3):233–9. 

3. Kyzar EJ, Nichols CD, Gainetdinov RR, Nichols DE, Kalueff AV. Psychedelic Drugs in Biomedicine. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2017 Nov;38(11):992–1005. 

4. Schenberg EE. Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy: A Paradigm Shift in Psychiatric Research and Development. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2018 Jul 5 [cited 2019 Jan 30];9. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphar.2018.00733/full

5. Vollenweider FX, Vollenweider-Scherpenhuyzen MF, Bäbler A, Vogel H, Hell D. Psilocybin induces schizophrenia-like psychosis in humans via a serotonin-2 agonist action. Neuroreport. 1998 Dec 1;9(17):3897–902. 

6. Rucker JJH. Psychedelic drugs should be legally reclassified so that researchers can investigate their therapeutic potential. BMJ. 2015 May 26;350(may26 20):h2902–h2902. 

7. Carhart-Harris RL, Goodwin GM. The Therapeutic Potential of Psychedelic Drugs: Past, Present, and Future. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017 Oct;42(11):2105–13. 

8. Krebs TS, Johansen P-Ø. Psychedelics and Mental Health: A Population Study. Lu L, editor. PLoS ONE. 2013 Aug 19;8(8):e63972. 

9. Litjens RPW, Brunt TM, Alderliefste G-J, Westerink RHS. Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder and the serotonergic system: A comprehensive review including new MDMA-related clinical cases. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2014 Aug;24(8):1309–23. 

10. Nichols D, Johnson M, Nichols C. Psychedelics as Medicines: An Emerging New Paradigm. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2017 Feb;101(2):209–19. 

11. Lupyan G, Clark A. Words and the World: Predictive Coding and the Language-Perception-Cognition Interface. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2015 Aug;24(4):279–84. 

12. Al-Issa I. Social and cultural aspects of hallucinations. Psychol Bull. 1977;84(3):570–87. 

13. Steeds H, Carhart-Harris RL, Stone JM. Drug models of schizophrenia. Ther Adv Psychopharmacol. 2015 Feb;5(1):43–58. 

14. Fortier M. Sense of reality, metacognition, and culture in schizophrenic and drug-induced hallucinations [Internet]. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press; 2018 [cited 2019 Jan 30]. Available from:http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780198789710.001.0001/oso-9780198789710-chapter-16 

15. Lakstygal AM, Kolesnikova TO, Khatsko SL, Zabegalov KN, Volgin AD, Demin KA, et al. DARK Classics in Chemical Neuroscience: Atropine, Scopolamine, and Other Anticholinergic Deliriant Hallucinogens. ACS Chem Neurosci [Internet]. 2019 Jan 10 [cited 2019 Jan 30]; Available from: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acschemneuro.8b00615

16. Hugdahl K. Auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia: the role of cognitive, brain structural and genetic disturbances in the left temporal lobe. Front Hum Neurosci [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2019 Jan 30];1. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/neuro.09.006.2007/abstract

17. Bramness JG, Gundersen ØH, Guterstam J, Rognli EB, Konstenius M, Løberg E-M, et al. Amphetamine-induced psychosis – a separate diagnostic entity or primary psychosis triggered in the vulnerable? BMC Psychiatry [Internet]. 2012 Dec [cited 2019 Jan 30];12(1). Available from: http://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-12-221

18. Hendricks PS, Thorne CB, Clark CB, Coombs DW, Johnson MW. Classic psychedelic use is associated with reduced psychological distress and suicidality in the United States adult population. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2015 Mar;29(3):280–8. 

19. Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, Umbricht A, Richards WA, Richards BD, et al. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2016 Dec;30(12):1181–97. 

20. Swanson LR. Unifying Theories of Psychedelic Drug Effects. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2018 Mar 2 [cited 2019 Jan 30];9. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphar.2018.00172/full

21. Flanagan TW, Nichols CD. Psychedelics as anti-inflammatory agents. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2018 Jul 4;30(4):363–75. 

22. Ly C, Greb AC, Cameron LP, Wong JM, Barragan EV, Wilson PC, et al. Psychedelics Promote Structural and Functional Neural Plasticity. Cell Rep. 2018 Jun;23(11):3170–82. 

23. Roseman L, Nutt DJ, Carhart-Harris RL. Quality of Acute Psychedelic Experience Predicts Therapeutic Efficacy of Psilocybin for Treatment-Resistant Depression. Front Pharmacol [Internet]. 2018 Jan 17 [cited2019 Jan 30];8. Available from: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fphar.2017.00974/full 

24. Priest G. The logic of Buddhist philosophy goes beyond simple truth [Internet]. Aeon. 2014 [cited 2019 Jan 30]. Available from: https://aeon.co/essays/the-logic-of-buddhist-philosophy-goes-beyond-simple-truth

25. Slaney KL, Maraun MD. Analogy and Metaphor Running Amok: An Examination of the Use of Explanatory Devices in Neuroscience. J Theor Philos Psychol. 2005;25(2):153–72. 

26. Halberstadt AL. Recent advances in the neuropsychopharmacology of serotonergic hallucinogens. Behav Brain Res. 2015 Jan;277:99–120. 

27. Roth BL, Baner K, Westkaemper R, Siebert D, Rice KC, Steinberg S, et al. Salvinorin A: A potent naturally occurring nonnitrogenous opioid selective agonist. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2002 Sep 3;99(18):11934–9. 

28. Powers III AR, Gancsos MG, Finn ES, Morgan PT, Corlett PR. Ketamine-Induced Hallucinations. Psychopathology. 2015 Sep 12;48(6):376–85. 

29. Newport DJ, Carpenter LL, McDonald WM, Potash JB, Tohen M, Nemeroff CB, et al. Ketamine and Other NMDA Antagonists: Early Clinical Trials and Possible Mechanisms in Depression. Am J Psychiatry. 2015 Oct;172(10):950–66. 

30. Perez-Aguilar JM, Shan J, LeVine MV, Khelashvili G, Weinstein H. A Functional Selectivity Mechanism at the Serotonin-2A GPCR Involves Ligand-Dependent Conformations of Intracellular Loop 2. J Am Chem Soc. 2014 Nov 12;136(45):16044–54. 

31. Zamberlan F, Sanz C, Martínez Vivot R, Pallavicini C, Erowid F, Erowid E, et al. The Varieties of the Psychedelic Experience: A Preliminary Study of the Association Between the Reported Subjective Effects and the Binding Affinity Profiles of Substituted Phenethylamines and Tryptamines. Front Integr Neurosci [Internet]. 2018 Nov 8 [cited 2019 Jan 30];12. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnint.2018.00054/full

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A History of Ecstasy Science

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November 28, 2018
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MIND Blog Editor

Lucca Jaeckel is completing his M.Sc. in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at Freie Universität Berlin.

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“One of the inescapable facts of life is that with MDMA, as with everything that combines both promise and threat, there are intense protagonists and intense antagonists. And both groups are vocal.”

– Alexander Shulgin10

Going by the street name “ecstasy”, not everyone would necessarily consider 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) a medical or psychedelic drug. The public conception of it seems to be that of a stimulant, taken by party-goers at nightclubs and festivals. According to media reports, these party-goers appear to frequently fall victim to adulterated pills and other risks of recreational use, with severe consequences.

Others who have had experiences with the drug or its users might know it by the name ‘hug-drug’, due to its empathogenic effects. But this conception omits the history of MDMA in the psychotherapeutic context, the complexities of its risks and dangers, and most recent scientific findings indicating the usefulness of MDMA as an adjunct to psychotherapy. The complexities of MDMA research will be addressed in this blog post, by sketching out a history of MDMA and its scientific investigations.

Discovery and initial investigation

The history of ecstasy begins in 1912, when chemists at Merck Pharmaceuticals first produced and patented it as an intermediate in a chemical reaction used to manufacture blood clotting agents. After this first description of its chemical formula in 1912, some pharmacological tests were performed at Merck in 1927, though the details of these experiments are unfortunately difficult to track down1. MDMA’s psychological effects in humans were not scientifically investigated until the late 1970s1. This was only done after its apparent use as a street drug, as indicated by police seizures of the substance in the early 1970s2.

In 1978, Alexander Shulgin and David Nichols published a book chapter entitled “Characterization of Three New Psychotomimetics”3, describing the psychological effects of substances chemically related to known psychoactive substances. In this publication, they described MDMA as a drug that “appears to evoke an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones”and compared its effects to cannabis, low doses of MDA, and psilocybin without sensory hallucinations3. These distinct effects of the drug as compared to classic psychedelics later led Nichols to identify it as part of a subgroup of psychedelics specifically prompted by MDMA: the entactogens4.

Popularization and Criminalization

It was Shulgin, too, who introduced MDMA to psychotherapists around the mid-1970s, and who subsequently used it as an adjunct to psychotherapy without formal FDA approval. From the late 70s until the mid-80s, the use of MDMA among therapists slowly but steadily increased, yet no controlled scientific research on its effects in therapy was conducted during this time5. Notably, this was around 10 years after LSD was used in similar underground psychotherapy and subsequently prohibited. As with LSD, over time MDMA increasingly attracted attention for its recreational effects. Some commercial vendors marketed the drug under the street name “ecstasy” for recreational users. Therapists, on the other hand, rather referred to it as “Adam”6,7

With rising popularity amongst recreational users, MDMA did not go unnoticed by politicians and the authorities. First and foremost, in response to Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen’s observation of its widespread use in Texas nightclubs, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) declared their plan to regulate MDMA as a Schedule 1 substance in 19845. They asserted that the substance lacked any recognized medical use. This planned scheduling was immediately contested by a group of mental health practitioners and researchers who requested the hearing of experts in the process of determining the future legal status of the substance. However, in July 1985, the DEA temporarily banned MDMA for one year due to prior findings on the neurotoxicity of its chemical analogue MDA, as well as its widespread availability. After the hearings, the responsible judge recommended that MDMA be placed in Schedule 3 in May 1986, stating that he believed MDMA had an accepted medical use; this would have allowed for its research and its use in therapy5.

However, “the DEA’s administrator, John C. Lawn, was not convinced […]”by the judge’s ruling and the DEA overruled his decision, arguing that MDMA was not a drug regulated by the FDA and therefore had no accepted medical use. Harvard Psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories (EMDL, a predecessor of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science – MAPS) subsequently filed an appeal based on the FDA-medical-use argument and misconduct of the DEA, which had performed the emergency scheduling of MDMA before getting the formal authorization to do so, and which had overruled the judge’s decision5,8. The appeal was granted, and thus MDMA remained unscheduled.

Simultaneously, multiple articles published in scientific journals were advocating for MDMA’s therapeutic potential. George Greer9, who facilitated many MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, published an overview of the subjective effects reported by patients who took the substance during therapy. Alexander Shulgin10 described a comprehensive summary of MDMA’s chemical background and what was known about its pharmacology. Lester Grinspoon11 outlined the theoretical background underlying the anecdotal evidence for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, with a special emphasis on the potential of MDMA. San Francisco based psychiatrist Philip Wolfsonpresented clinical case studies of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and tried to specify in which situations it may be helpful, and when it might have severe limitations and perils.Moreover, funded by EMDL, Joseph Downing12 published a study on the physiological and psychological effects of MDMA in human volunteers, concluding that “one can only say that MDMA […] has remarkably consistent and predictable psychological effects that are transient and free of clinically apparent major toxicity”12. And, also funded by EMDL, Charles Frith and colleagues administered MDMA to dogs and rats 13. They stated that “neuropathological changes were not evident in either species”, thereby challenging the concerns about neurotoxicity resembling that of MDA. Despite these attempts to justify the therapeutic use of MDMA, the DEA finally placed the drug in Schedule 1 in March 19885.

After the Schedule 1 Listing

Soon after the scheduling, George Ricaurte et al.14 published a first investigation into the neurological risks of MDMA based on findings in nonhuman primates. This group of Johns Hopkins researchers was the first to show that serotonin depletion, as well as structural changes in the serotonin system, are among the consequences of MDMA consumption. Simultaneously, the recreational use of MDMA in the form of ecstasy pills with electronic dance music started to spread around the globe. Since MDMA was illegal pretty much everywhere, the surge in what was now deemed ‘illegal abuse’ enabled policymakers to provide generous funding to investigate the risks and dangers of the illicit use of the substance.

This risk-centered paradigm was set to dominate MDMA research for the subsequent decades. The bulk of research on the substance’s risks that accumulated over that time was critically examined by Liverpool psychologist Jonathan Cole15, who argues the last 30 years of ecstasy research and its results have to be understood in the context of what he calls the ‘ecstasy paradigm’: Since MDMA has become an illegal drug, its scientific investigation and the public discourse have become subject to moral norms concerning the consumption of drugs. He posits that it became imperative for scientists to show that MDMA is dangerous, which presumably led to multiple flaws in reasoning and methodologies and thereby to biased scientific findings.

For instance, Cole claims a systematic publication bias in the risk-centered literature. He exemplifies this using a situation in which one of his papers, indicating that ecstasy users may not be psychiatrically impaired in the way that has been suggested by others, was rejected. One of the anonymous peer reviewers, whom Cole implicates as part of the problem, commented that he found the data hard to believe15.

Scientific research on the therapeutic effects of MDMA was effectively halted by the Schedule 1 listing. However, organized efforts to enable research into these aspects of MDMA were already made around the time of the scheduling. The aforementioned EMDL was founded to challenge the DEA’s scheduling of MDMA. In response to the Schedule 1 listing of the drug and the lack of evidence to support it, one of the EMDL’s co-founders, Rick Doblin, went on to start MAPS. The idea behind this was to create a non-profit pharmaceutical company which would “facilitate research into the therapeutic uses of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy”8.

However, the political climate remained unfavorable until fairly recently. Throughout the years, further writings resembling and building upon the 1986 journal articles have been published to advocate for substance-assisted psychotherapy, and specifically MDMA-assisted psychotherapye.g. 14–18. And eventually, the first MAPS-funded randomized controlled clinical trial investigating MDMA-assisted psychotherapy was conducted by José Bouso et al.21. Their study, for which they started enrolling patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2000, was prematurely shut down in 2002 due to political pressure, leaving 23 out of 29 patients untreated and insufficient data for statistical analysis8,21.

Undeterred, MAPS funded Michael Mithoefer’s22–24 trials in the U.S. and Peter Oehen’s25 trial in Switzerland. Despite minor inconsistencies in the results, possibly due to the small sample sizes, the studies indicated that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is a promising therapeutic approach for PTSD26,27. Additionally, a recent MAPS-funded study indicates that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy may decrease symptoms of social anxiety in autistic adults28.

As opposed to applied clinical and forensic research, throughout the last ten years MDMA has also increasingly been studied from a more basic scientific perspective. This approach does not focus on the positive or negative effects of MDMA, but on neutrally investigating the effects of the substance in humans. While pharmacological data has already been obtained in the context of forensic science, some fields have only emerged after the 2000s revival of research on MDMA-assisted-psychotherapy. For example, the effects of MDMA on human socio-emotional cognition and behavior have been under investigation since 2009e.g. 29–31Furthermore, some researchers are performing mechanistic studies in which certain receptors are blocked pharmacologically to illuminate the neurobiology underpinning MDMA’s psychological effectse.g. 32–34. Both of these approaches not only expand our knowledge of MDMA and its effects, but also provide unique insights into the neurobiology underlying complex cognitive and affective processes. While these advances may bear less imminent implications for practice, they offer great potential for general scientific advancement and translational research at a later point.

Changing Paradigms – Future Directions

For years, research on MDMA has been limited to investigating the risks of its recreational use. This seems to be mainly due to the limited evidence base on the substance’s therapeutic effects at the time of the DEA scheduling. But largely thanks to the persistent work of MAPS, we can now distinguish between several strands of MDMA research. These strands partially correspond to the dual use of the drug in recreational and therapeutic contexts, but recently began to include basic scientific investigations as well. This research seeks to enable not only more precise management of the risks of recreational use and better treatment of mental health conditions, but also to bring general scientific advancement.

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If you share our vision and want to support psychedelic research and education, we are grateful for any amount you can give.

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References 

1. Freudenmann RW, Öxler F, Bernschneider-Reif S. The origin of MDMA (ecstasy) revisited: the true story reconstructed from the original documents. Addiction. 2006 Sep;101(9):1241–5.

2. Gaston TR, Rasmussen GT. Identification of 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. Microgram. 1972;5(60).

3. Shulgin AT, Nichols DE. Characterization of Three New Psychotomimetics. In: The Psychopharmacology of Hallucinogens [Internet]. Saint Louis: Elsevier Science; 1978 [cited 2018 Sep 4]. Available from: http://qut.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=1838603

4. Nichols DE. Differences Between the Mechanism of Action of MDMA, MBDB, and the Classic Hallucinogens. Identification of a New Therapeutic Class: Entactogens. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):305–13.

5. Holland J. The History of MDMA. In: Holland J, editor. Ecstasy:The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA [Internet]. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 11–20.

6. Wolfson PE. Meetings at the Edge with Adam: A Man for All Seasons? J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):329–33.

7. Adamson S, Metzner R. The nature of the MDMA experience and its role in healing, psychotherapy and spiritual practice. ReVision. 1988;10(4):59–72.

8. Emerson A, Ponte L, Jerome L, Doblin R. History and future of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014;46(1):27–36.

9. Greer G, Tolbert R. Subjective Reports of the Effects of MDMA in a Clinical Setting. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):319–27.

10. Shulgin AT. The background and chemistry of MDMA. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):291–304.

11. Grinspoon L, Bakalar J. Can drugs be used to enhance the psychotherapeutic process? Am J Psychother. 1986 Jul;40(3):393–404.

12. Downing J. The Psychological and Physiological Effects of MDMA on Normal Volunteers. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1986 Oct;18(4):335–40.

13. Frith CH, Chang LW, Lattin DL, Walls RC, Hamm J, Doblin R. Toxicity of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) in the dog and the rat. Fundam Appl Toxicol Off J Soc Toxicol. 1987 Jul;9(1):110–9.

14. Ricaurte GA, Forno LS, Wilson MA, DeLanney LE, Irwin I, Molliver ME, et al. (+/-)3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine selectively damages central serotonergic neurons in nonhuman primates. JAMA. 1988 Jul 1;260(1):51–5.

15. Cole JC. MDMA and the “Ecstasy Paradigm.” J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014 Jan;46(1):44–56.

16. Liester MB, Grob CS, Bravo GL, Walsh RN. Phenomenology and sequelae of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine use. J Nerv Ment Dis. 1992 Jun;180(6):345–52.

17. Grinspoon L, Doblin R. Psychedelics as Catalysts of Insight-Oriented Psychotherapy. Soc Res. 2001;68(3):677–95.

18. Bouso JC, Ryan C. Using MDMA in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. In: Holland J, Holland J (Ed), editors. Ecstasy: The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 248–60.

19. Metzner R, Adamson S. Using MDMA in healing, psychotherapy, and spiritual practice. In: Holland J, Holland J (Ed), editors. Ecstasy:The complete guide:  A comprehensive look at the risks and benefits of MDMA. Rochester, VT, US: Park Street Press; 2001. p. 182–207.

20. Metzner R. Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1998 Dec;30(4):333–41.

21. Bouso JC, Doblin R, Farré M, Alcázar MÁ, Gómez-Jarabo G. MDMA-assisted psychotherapy using low doses in a small sample of women with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2008 Sep;40(3):225–36.

22. Mithoefer MC, Mithoefer AT, Feduccia AA, Jerome L, Wagner M, Wymer J, et al. 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans, firefighters, and police officers: a randomised, double-blind, dose-response, phase 2 clinical trial. Lancet Psychiatry [Internet]. 2018 May [cited 2018 May 23]; Available from: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2215036618301354

23. Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Doblin R. The safety and efficacy of ±3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder: The first randomized controlled pilot study. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2011 Apr;25(4):439–52.

24. Mithoefer MC, Wagner MT, Mithoefer AT, Jerome L, Martin SF, Yazar-Klosinski B, et al. Durability of improvement in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and absence of harmful effects or drug dependency after 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine-assisted psychotherapy: A prospective long-term follow-up study. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2013 Jan;27(1):28–39.

25. Oehen P, Traber R, Widmer V, Schnyder U. A randomized, controlled pilot study of MDMA (± 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine)-assisted psychotherapy for treatment of resistant, chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). J Psychopharmacol Oxf Engl. 2013 Jan;27(1):40–52.

26. Chabrol H, Oehen P. MDMA assisted psychotherapy found to have a large effect for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. J Psychopharmacol (Oxf). 2013 Sep;27(9):865–6.

27. Thal SB, Lommen MJJ. Current perspective on mdma-assisted psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. J Contemp Psychother [Internet]. 2018 Jun; 48(2):99-108.

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