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From Issue Sixteen, November 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

The Promise of Psychedelic Research

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Editor’s Note: Last month we published an excerpt from a presentation on the use of psilocybin to treat severe stress during terminal illness—it is proving to be one of our more popular articles. This month we look more broadly at the use of psychedelics in clinical settings and as a facilitator of higher-level functioning and personal insight. This article is neither an endorsement of illegal use nor an advocacy for legalization, but a recognition that these drugs are in the mainstream and having a variety of impacts on users, positive as well as negative, and merit more serious investigation. Our coverage of psychedelic research is also an acknowledgment of the cutting-edge work being carried out and/or supported by the Heffter Research Institute, John Hopkins University, New York University, and MAPS.


Psychedelics are back. To be more accurate, psychedelic research is back. To be truly factual, peer-reviewed, double-blind, institutionally based, and federally sanctioned psychedelic research is back. The research community, of which I am a member, is enthusiastic that after what Dr. Charles Grob calls “a protracted lull,” research has resumed. And the results of initial studies have been conclusive: Psychedelics, given in a safe, supportive setting, can be of enormous benefit to people suffering from numerous serious conditions.

It is not surprising to know that people intending to have a spiritual experience can do so with the help of psychedelics when properly supported and guided. It is totally surprising, however, that for people suffering from cluster headaches—the worst kind of headaches we know of—a single psychedelic experience can prevent these headaches from reoccurring for months afterward. Not to mention the fact that people nearing death can become far less anxious about their impending transition after a supervised psychedelic journey. We have also learned that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy has helped people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who had failed to benefit from any other kind of therapy.

These results are not only being published and replicated, but each study mentioned above became a news sensation, garnering hundreds of media stories within weeks of its journal release. When publications as diverse as The Wall Street Journal and Scottish Sporting News run positive stories about psychedelic experiences, you know that we have turned a cultural corner.

At the beginning of this article I said that psychedelics are back. I was speaking only about the return of research. Government surveys reveal that nonsanctioned psychedelic use has continued during the forty-plus years that these substances have been illegal. Twenty-three million Americans have used LSD, a figure estimated by U.S. government surveys to increase by as much as six hundred thousand each year. Any inclusive discussion of psychedelic experiences must take into account not only the few extremely important approved studies but also the larger body of users.

LSD and a number of other psychedelics are unusual in that the major effects are dose dependent. This means that if the dose is higher or lower, entirely different experiences occur. When you think of aspirin, antidepressants, blood pressure medications, diuretics, and other classes of pharmaceuticals, raising the dose makes the central effect more obvious, may increase the duration of that effect, and at high enough doses can become dangerous. This is not true for psychedelics.

To better understand the full span of psychedelic research and experience, it is useful to describe four areas of dosage, each of which differs in intention, methodology, dose level, and results.

Microdosage: Improved Normal Functioning

The lowest effective dose of LSD is 5 to 10 micrograms (millionths of a gram), which Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD, characterized as “an under-researched area” of use. These subperceptual dosages, or “microdoses,” induce minimal perceptual, sensory, or cognitive changes or distortions.

Typically, micro-dosers talk about sustained intellectual and emotional clarity. A physician I talked with reported, “Since I started microdosing, taking 10 mcg of LSD every three days, I am in touch with a deep place of ease and beauty and trust. I have more strength and determination.” An addiction counselor concludes, “The subthreshold doses helped me to be more focused overall, with better mental clarity. I was also more energetic, with better memory recall.”

While most of the field reports I’ve been accumulating are favorable, a few are not. For example, “I experience headaches, obsess about cleaning, and feel so spaced afterwards . . . it is not for my biochemistry.” People who find these doses uncomfortable either lower their dose or simply stop taking the psychedelic. There are no reports, as yet, of serious difficulties.

It is foolish to assume that any substance, especially those as powerful as psychedelics, are good for everyone. These preliminary reports, however, reveal possibilities that beg for more rigorous scientific exploration. Many of the self-reports come from people in creative occupations. They don’t say that they are more creative or that they are creating at a higher level. Rather, they report that they do more of what they do well, with greater concentration and less fatigue.

Many individuals note that their use of microdoses goes unnoticed by anyone else, thus causing no upsets or negative reactions. One man called microdosing “an invisible use.” While most of these reports are about LSD, descriptions about other psychedelics are becoming available as well. For centuries, indigenous healers have taken a small dose when giving larger doses to others or have given tiny doses to individuals or groups for clarity, cohesiveness, or healing.

Low Dose: Creative Problem-Solving

At a dose of about 100 micrograms of LSD, higher-than-normal levels of creativity have been reported. Willis Harman, president of IONS from 1975 through 1996, helped pioneer this work and was convinced that it was possible to harness the psychedelic experience for the purpose of finding solutions to difficult technical and scientific problems. At the time, there was no evidence that this was likely. People working with psychedelics generally felt that the experience was so sensorially overwhelming and psychologically and emotionally engaging that no one could or would focus that psychic energy on a problem in physics, architecture, computer design, or biology.

Nevertheless, in l965, Dr. Harman, together with a small research team of which I was a member, conducted a series of sessions with senior scientists and architects. One criterion for inclusion in the study was that a participant had to have been trying to solve a specific problem for several months without success. Having already invested considerable effort on the problem area, finding a solution mattered personally as well as professionally to them.

They were instructed to use the psychedelic-induced state as a way to stay with their problem and not get distracted by any other influence. After taking the psychedelic (LSD or mescaline), they were encouraged to lie down, put on eyeshades, and let their minds relax by listening to music for several hours. Soon after the peak of the psychophysiological experience, they were asked to sit up and take the same standard creativity tests they had taken earlier. They spent the rest of the afternoon—and for most of them that evening—on their chosen problems.

This initial group of four was so successful that later groups were told to bring at least two problems, so that if one was solved, they would have another one ready. [Of the forty-four problems attempted by twenty-seven subjects, only four were scored “no solution obtained.” Twenty problems were scored “new avenues for investigation opened.”1  One participant voiced what seemed to be true for many of the subjects: “The ideas considered and developed in the session appear as important steps, and the period of the session was the single most productive period of work on this problem I have had in the several months preceding or following the session.”2  As an indirect measurement of the perceived value of the process, many colleagues of those in the original study eagerly volunteered to be prospective subjects.

While we cannot say what might have happened if this kind of work had continued during the forty-year taboo on psychedelic research, we do know that at least two Nobel Prize winners, Francis Crick and Kary Mullins, reported that their own insights while using psychedelics were pivotal in exactly those areas for which they received the prize. Steve Jobs also stated that his LSD sessions were important in his creative life.

The current research emphasis is on medical and therapeutic results; it may be that the work pioneered by Willis Harman’s team will, in the long run, be equally valuable.

Moderate Dosage: Physical and Psychological Healing

The research done in the 1960s on the therapeutic efficacy of psychedelic experiences is being reviewed and renewed, but with a new emphasis on treating conditions that have not been successfully treated by other means. As noted earlier, the research so far has focused on high anxiety in terminal cancer patients, cluster headaches, and PTSD. Other possible studies are looking at stuttering and smoking cessation as well as autism and other genetic conditions.

Moderately high doses of psychedelics show similar benefits for individuals working on psychodynamic issues, as would be found in a normal outpatient clinic population. Earlier large-sample study results reported a high abstinence rate in otherwise treatment-resistant alcoholics.3

Based on his personal as well as his clinical experience, Dr. Andrew Weil is calling for studies using psychedelics for allergies as well as multiple sclerosis. There is also successful work being done with cocaine and heroin addiction using ibogaine [a plant-based psychoactive agent found originally in Africa]. Clinics in Africa, Europe, Australia, Mexico, Peru, and other countries are following up on research originally carried out (but no longer legal) in the United States (see, for example, http://www.myeboga.com/providers.html).

Researchers (including myself) who are surveying people who use psychedelics recreationally are finding that many of them report that their primary reason for taking the drug is self-help, self-understanding, and greater awareness of their own consciousness. It is hoped that sponsored legal research will begin to look more closely at these reports and at this population of users.

High Dosage: Entheogenic Experiences

Highest-dose research (in the range of 400 micrograms of LSD) on subjects in safe and well-guided situations often reports experiences of personal transcendence, described by participants with what has been called “classical mystical language.” Follow-up research suggests that these people become less neurotic, more compassionate, and more aware of others, and are seen by their friends and colleagues as more open and friendly. In one study, over 90 percent of the sample reported that their marriages had improved as a result of their experience.4 A major American Buddhist teacher reports that at least 80 percent of the Buddhist teachers in the United States either were attracted to Buddhism after such an experience or had some of these experiences early in their training.

Below is a case where the intention was therapeutic but the dose used was such that the subject had a true entheogenic experience.

Roy [is] a 52-year-old television news producer and Stage-4 lung-cancer patient, who this summer underwent psilocybin treatment at NYU after three years of chemotherapy. Roy had grown increasingly anxious and depressed before his revelatory psilocybin session. Today he describes that session as among the most precious and important experiences of his life . . . “From here on love was the only consideration,” Roy writes of his psilocybin session. “Love seemed to emanate from a single point of light. The bliss was indescribable . . . I took a tour of my lungs. There were nodules but they seemed rather unimportant . . . I was being told (without words) to not worry about the cancer . . . it’s minor in the scheme of things, simply an imperfection of your humanity and that the real work to be done is before you . . . [On the day after the session] I felt spectacular . . . both physically and mentally! It had been a very long time since I’d felt that good . . . a serene sense of balance . . . Undoubtedly, my life has changed in ways I may never fully comprehend. I now have an understanding, an awareness that goes beyond intellect, that my life, that every life, and all that is the universe equals one thing: Love.”5

The entire article is detailed and comprehensive and can be found here. [The recollection comes from the work of Stephen Ross, highlighted in last month’s issue of Noetic Now in the article “Psilocybin at the End of Life.”]

Implications for Contemporary Culture

What I haven’t discussed are reported incidences of paranormal phenomena during higher-dose usages, including telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. These phenomena often occurred in earlier research studies, but because the substances themselves were controversial, the research climate wasn’t conducive to reporting these events. They do, however, live at the core of some sacred indigenous traditions. A common practice in South America, for example, is to ask a shaman to visit and observe distant relatives. Such “remote-viewing” rituals using plant and fungal entheogens have been noted repeatedly by anthropologists but are still avoided in current research.

Also fundamental to many indigenous cultures that have used these substances ritually for thousands of years is a profound awareness of their natural biological community. They say that unless more people experience a deeper awareness and appreciation of the complex ecological network in which we all move and live, it is unlikely that “developed” civilization will continue. While psychedelic plants and fungi occur worldwide, it is curious that LSD, a synthesized substance, has been the breakthrough substance that has restored many Westerners’ connection with nature. Perhaps as psychedelic research becomes more accepted, formal studies on their use in indigenous cultures will start to emerge that bring the wisdom of these traditions to bear on the nature and potential of all human consciousness.

What then are we to make of the four faces of psychedelic research: low doses for higher functioning, moderate doses for scientific problem solving, higher doses for psychotherapy and self-exploration, and high doses for transcendent spiritual experiences? Ram Dass quotes a saying that “painted words do not satisfy.” No matter how attractive the menu, ultimately one needs to eat the food to be nourished. As more people are trained to ensure that these substances are used with maximum safety and for maximum benefit, the initial promise of beneficial psychedelic experiences will, if verified, lead to more research and greater acceptance of these compounds.


Notes

1. James Fadiman, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2011), p. 132.

2. Ibid, p. 133.

3. N. Chwelos, D. Blewett, C. Smith, A. Hoffer, “Use of LSD in the Treatment of Alcoholism,” Quarterly Journal of Alcohol Studies 20 (1959): 577–590.

4. Fadiman, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, p. 290.

5. Alexander Zaitchik, Flashback! Psychedelic Research Returns, last accessed November 2011, http://life.salon.com/2011/09/28/the_new_lsd_cure/.

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  • 1 Comments
  • Cainoth Dec 12, 2011

    I am diagnosed with Severe PTSD (among a lot of other disorders modern medicine likes to throw around... not to mention the drugs they threw at me) I am currently at 100% disability through the V.A. from my service in The U.S. Army namely my tour in Iraq. However; I have recently experienced a significant Transformation of Consciousness that has not only changed the way I view EVERYTHING, it has done what modern science has failed to do. My physical body and its "Mind" are healing in ways that my wife and I find to be no less than miraculous.

    That being said I find myself reading this article and I am seeing all of my Entheogenic experiences in a whole new light. It has been something like 15 years since my last psychedelic experience which was a constant daily intake of a wonderful tea I made from local azurescens. That daily intake spanned about a month. I knew during all of my experimentation that my consciousness had a strange power to affect reality in interesting ways. I also had an uncommon tolerance for all drugs psychedelic, especially for a 16ish year old mid-american vagabond. I suppose the reason I am drawn to comment on this article is that it has opened my eyes to another yet unexplored (or at least revisited) path toward a complete holistic recovery... or maybe it is not even about my recovery, I am not sure of anything other than the fact that I am prone to ramble. At this point it seems like I fit snugly in this field of research and am interested in any areas that I can safely and comfortably explore these types of healing practices.

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