This is the article I never expected to see when I became interested in drugs and brains and things. It’s essentially what I said here, but said by Michael Pollan in a credible publication. It carries more weight than a crazy person’s blog. Unthinkable:
I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts. “I’m personally biased in favor of these type of studies,” Thomas R. Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (N.I.M.H.) and a neuroscientist, told me. “If it proves useful to people who are really suffering, we should look at it. Just because it is a psychedelic doesn’t disqualify it in our eyes.” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), emphasized that “it is important to remind people that experimenting with drugs of abuse outside a research setting can produce serious harms.”
I imagine it’s impossible for something so politically inflammatory to happen without the knowledge and consent of Francis Collins. He’s religious, which made his appointment controversial, but I wonder how much that has to do with the new atmosphere of open-mindedness (!).
Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.
Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.
A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
I mean…wouldn’t you be excited?
The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.
Here’s Timothy Leary talking about acid and being ahead of his time:
In the 1990s, the people saying all these things were ravers and weird people on the internet. When I started grad school just 10 years ago, the most interesting thing about MDMA was its serotonergic neurotoxicity and hallucinogens clearly fall under the ban on admitting consciousness is real and important. The potential of blocking the 5-HT2A receptor for antipsychotic reasons was what people worried about, not using partial agonists of the receptor to induce mystical experiences.
My teacher told me to read Brave New World, and I found “The Doors of Perception” on the internet. If Aldous Huxley is Officially Worth Listening To, and he says mescaline is really important, it’s important, right? Before that, I think I had to do a report on mescaline in 8th grade. Like skateboarding, psychedelics are just pretty neat when you hear about them without preconceptions. Research picked up once there was no longer any institutional memory of hippies on acid being a profound danger to the nation.
It feels good to say “I told you so,” but it makes me wish normal people understood how much it sucks when they passively trust authority and follow instructions to demonize people. Imagine it’s the 1980s or 1990s and you know about an important thing that’s relevant to our deepest existential issues. That is, you were enthusiastic about it for the same reasons as the current director of NIMH, so your interest is justified by generally accepted standards. Now imagine trying to talk about it with almost anybody. People will say the most absurd things about jumping out of windows and it’s a stupid idea just because and you sound like a crazy person and must be a drug addict trying to rationalize your behavior and…Psychedelics help with addiction, ironically. Your tax dollars at work.
Nobody would listen for decades. I find that a lot more disturbing than the possibility that authority is fallible. People feel innocent when their reaction is, “Oh, whatever. The government has experts and they must’ve looked into it. That’s why dangerous drugs are illegal! The person in front of me is making wild accusations and seems vaguely suspicious.” People reacting that way were responsible for setting psychiatric research back by decades. We still do things because Nixon hated hippies. LSD is obviously worth studying. We can obviously gain knowledge that could help people by studying LSD.
The stigma has a lot to do with people in authority fearing loss of control. Unqualified people might use these things without supervision at parties, which would be a social disaster worse than alcohol for never-stated reasons. People might do…something…unsafe. They might have a lot of anxiety for 10 hours.
From the beginning, the advocates of these things stressed “set and setting,” or the fact that drug effects are an interaction between the pharmacology and the situation, emotions, culture, etc. surrounding the drug-taking. If mystical experiences are the ultimate origin of religion, religions are cultural patterns laid over the experience. Psychedelics democratize religiously inspiring experiences, which people frame in different ways. This is threatening to organized religions, but not to the spirit of the First Amendment, or the wider cultural trend towards being “spiritual but not religious.”
Supposing an FDA-approved pill comes of all this, it’ll be extremely stigmatized after conditioning the public that hallucinogens are terrifying for so many years. Already-stigmatized mentally ill people might get the chance to try a treatment even more stigmatized than existing medications. Tripping crazy people face an uphill battle for acceptance, even though they might be doing something doctors with MDs think is healthy for them.