(TMU) — In a vast stride forward for the nationwide movement to legalize psilocybin—or “magic” mushrooms—the Oakland City Council has voted unanimously to decriminalize natural psychedelics—including mushrooms—making the major California Bay Area city the second city in the United States to do so.The resolution orders law enforcement to immediately halt the investigation and prosecution of those who use the drugs and applies to psychedelics that derive from plants and fungi, including psilocybin mushrooms and the psychedelic plants ayahuasca, cacti and iboga. The law will not apply to synthetic drugs like LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), or other manmade chemicals.The move comes one month after voters in Denver approved the decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms, halting the use of city resources to pursue criminal penalties for people over 21 who use or possess magic mushrooms.
Following the vote in Oakland, 100 supporters rose from their chairs, clapping and cheering for the move, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Nicolle Greenheart, co-founder of Decriminalize Nature Oakland, said:
“I don’t have words, I could cry … I’m thrilled. I’m glad that our communities will now have access to the healing medicines and we can start working on healing our communities.”
In addition to demanding that police halt the policing of the drugs, the resolution also instructs state and federal lobbyists from Oakland to push a decriminalization agenda. The resolution further calls for the Alameda County district attorney’s officials to “cease prosecution of persons involved in the use of Entheogenic Plants or plant-based compounds” that are presently listed in Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
The resolution was championed by Councilman Noel Gallo, who introduced it after meeting with Decriminalize Nature, supporters of the use of natural psychedelics for mental health and people’s wellbeing.
Gallo told the Chronicle that the move is a strong step toward legitimizing the medicinal use of the plants, explaining:
“My grandmother took care of us. She didn’t go to Walgreens to heal us spiritually and physically, she did it out of plants we use as Native Americans.”
The Oakland City Council listened to the testimonies of 30 people who emphatically laid out how psilocybin helped them deal with mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, addiction, and trauma, according toUSA Today.
During public comment, one woman said:
“I wasn’t really living a life, I was so disconnected … it was hard for me to survive everyday. It has helped me reach deep inside my soul and helped cure damage that had been done to me.”
Another man who explained that he struggled with heroin addiction said:
“It was the most beautiful and life-changing thing that ever happened to me.”
The council president, Rebecca Kaplan, thanked supporters of the resolution for sharing their “deep and personal and profound” stories.
An amendment to the resolution clarifies that it does not authorize the commercial sale or manufacture of the plants, possession or distribution in schools, or driving while under the influence of the psychedelic drugs.
The amendment also explains that potential users of psychedelics who are in the throes of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) should first consult with a doctor before taking a dose, adding that natural psychedelics should be used in small doses for inexperienced users and “don’t go solo.”
The move comes as a growing body of research has laid out the benefits of magic mushrooms. Recent studies have shown how a microdose of psilocybin—far from the level needed for a full-blown trip—actually increases the creativity and empathy of participants. Advocates note that psilocybin has shown great promise in psychotherapeutic settings, shattering the decades-old stereotype of magic mushrooms as some intoxicating and hallucination-inducing party drug that drives its users insane.
Speaking before last week’s public safety committee, Councilman Gallo explained:
“We want to be able to provide another medical service… to be able to help us at home and that is what this is all about … And it’s nothing new. It’s been happening for thousands of years in different countries, in different spiritual backgrounds.”
The passage of the resolution comes amid a wave of activism supporting policy changes that would decriminalize natural psychedelics, with similar efforts advancing in the state of Iowa along with efforts to place a psilocybin legalization measure on the ballot in Oregon.
A friend recently related to me that he was having brief hallucinations that kept periodically intruding on his everyday reality for a few minutes. Out of an abundance of caution, he had a neurological exam and nothing untoward turned up.
He said that he was seeing an “atrocious” reality, an extensive demonic network that maintains a false, fabricated, fake reality in order to feed off of our human energies, vampire-like.
I told him that in my opinion he should not fear that he is losing his mind, but that quite to the contrary, it sounds like, in fact, he is on the verge of finding his mind. It sounds to me like he is starting to see the monstrous, demonic, meta-reality, artificial control structure, the fake control grid, the false executable program, the diabolical veil that has been falsely inflicted on humanity and the Earth by darkly demonic powers and beings, to degrade and confuse humanity and destroy the living Earth.
In my view, my friend, and growing numbers of other people, are starting to see through the demonic control structure and actually glimpse the ghastly, hideous entities that lie behind, manipulating this reality to their debased, fiendish ends and ghoulishly feeding off of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies for their own vile purposes.
More and more people are starting to see beyond the veil, each person in their own way, according to their own understanding, and are beginning to directly observe the gruesome horror show in all its ghastliness. That’s the “hacked” meta-reality overlaying this Earth realm; it’s an intrusive, reality hacking program, or reality hijacking program, an all-concealing blanket of complex, deviously interwoven deception, lies, illusions, exploitation, abuse, degradation, torture, slavery, war, slaughter, destruction, crime, corruption, and more. It’s thoroughly disgusting.
This Earth realm that we have been born into, or falsely inserted or programmed into, is the grand, false hallucination.
Nothing is as it seems.
This is what ayahuasca has been showing me, again and again, ever since I first drank it in November of 2010. And I cannot keep from reflexively projectile vomiting, hurling and spewing at the sheer hideousness of it all. What has been falsely imposed on us is repulsive and grotesque beyond the power of words to describe.
My Own Recurring Dream
I have not been having any so-called “hallucinations,” but what my friend recounted to me nevertheless prompted me to recall a clear dream that I have twice recently had. It’s the same dream, a clear dream, and both times of exactly the same thing.
As my long-time readers know, in the last week of 2012 I was almost killed by the Amazonian shaman from whom I was learning and with whom I was staying in the eastern, jungle region of Ecuador. I was subsequently hospitalized for more than 4 months in the public hospitals in Ecuador.
The peculiar thing is that, as I have said, I have recently twice dreamed the same very clear dream: that the hospital in which I spent more than three months here in Quito, which physically exists and is well known, is in actuality a Total Recall-like reality cover to conceal the actual hospital I was really in, which [at least in the dream(s)] is also here in a Quito neighborhood, but that the entire reality that I know as “Quito” and everything that happened to me in the Ecuadorean Amazon and in the *hospital* here in Quito, is an extremely elaborate ruse that exceeds the special effects, props and casting of any big budget, Hollywood feature film, by multiple orders of magnitude..
In other words, the purport of the peculiar dream(s) is that I am immersed in the Mother of All Mind Fu*ks, for unknown purposes and to an unknown extent, and that a huge mental-social-medical-legal-shamanic scam has been run on me. If so, why?
It seems unbelievable, preposterous, way too fantastic to be true, and yet that is what ayahuasca keeps showing me: it’s all fake; it’s all false; all of this so-called “reality” in which we are immersed is faker and falser than can be believed. Its fakeness is unimaginable, by intentional, overwhelming design.
So what is really real?
This is a peculiar development that I did not anticipate, which raises no end of questions. The most obvious one is: just who or what is the shaman/brujo and what is his role in all of this? Have I ventured off into a false, parallel reality that has hacked or hijacked *real* reality? Have we all? I saw some E.T.s in my time in the Amazon — are they in on it? Are they in cahoots with the shaman/brujo? There were some USSA Army officers who came to the shaman’s place while I was there, in the months before he almost killed me. Are the USSA Army officers part of this scenario? If so, what is their role? I was telephoned in the hospital by the USSA Embassy immediately after I had been hospitalized in the Amazon to ask how they could “help” me. Is the USSA State Department part of it? I subsequently interacted with a whole slew of attorneys, doctors, prosecutors, police officers, judges, investigators, politicians, shamans, and many other sundry people, many of whom I now have questions about.
How do they all fit in to it? What did I stumble into? What alarm bells did I ring? What does it all mean?
I used to think that I knew how the world worked and what was going on. Those illusions are now rapidly receding into the distance in life’s rear view mirror.
I see tourists who come to South America to spend a few days in the Amazon. For the most part, they have absolutely no clue what the Amazon really is, or Quito for that matter!! And at this point, I have many questions about the Amazon and Quito myself.
I would add in closing that I have been vibrating, virtually on a daily basis, for more than a year and a half now. Sometimes the vibrations can be quite strong and vigorous; sometimes they are very smooth and gentle. They move around to different parts of the body, and come and go, never hurting or causing even the slightest pain or discomfort. I couldn’t tell you what the vibrations mean, though they are real enough. Perhaps there is going to be a reality phase change of sorts, and I am persistently synchronizing with what is coming? I don’t know, but it occurs to me to consider the possibility.
And by the way, dear reader, not to be rude or offensive, because that is not my intent, but who are you, beyond an online persona whom I have never encountered face to face? What is the depth and extent of your reality?
Any comments or feedback? Vibrations? Visions? Dreams?
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“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addition, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of to the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.
And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.
The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”
More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.
Pollan reflects on the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder:
What was most remarkable about the results… is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five “most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives; one-third ranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,” changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.
What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions — involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego — that may be the key to changing one’s mind.
My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.
Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?
The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.
The root of this unnamed dimension of existence, Pollan suggests, is the inevitable narrowing of perspective that takes place as we grow up and learn to navigate the world by cataloguing its elements into mental categories that often fail to hold the complexity and richness of the experiences they name — an impulse born out of our longing for absolutes in a relative world. Psychedelics break down these artificial categories and swing open the doors of perception — to borrow William Blake’s famous phrase later famously appropriated by Aldous Huxley as the slogan of the first-wave psychedelic revolution — so that life can enter our consciousness in its unfiltered, unfragmented completeness. In consequence, we view the world — the inner world and the outer world — with a child’s eyes.
Over time, we tend to optimize and conventionalize our responses to whatever life brings. Each of us develops our shorthand ways of slotting and processing everyday experiences and solving problems, and while this is no doubt adaptive — it helps us get the job done with a minimum of fuss — eventually it becomes rote. It dulls us. The muscles of attention atrophy.
Habits are undeniably useful tools, relieving us of the need to run a complex mental operation every time we’re confronted with a new task or situation. Yet they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world: to attend, feel, think, and then act in a deliberate manner. (That is, from freedom rather than compulsion.)
The efficiencies of the adult mind, useful as they are, blind us to the present moment. We’re constantly jumping ahead to the next thing. We approach experience much as an artificial intelligence (AI) program does, with our brains continually translating the data of the present into the terms of the past, reaching back in time for the relevant experience, and then using that to make its best guess as to how to predict and navigate the future.
One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful — wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!) Alas, most of the time I inhabit a near-future tense, my psychic thermostat set to a low simmer of anticipation and, too often, worry. The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.
Together with his wife, Judith, he ingests a psilocybin mushroom he himself has picked from the woods of the Pacific Northwest with the mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the foundational guide to psilocybin mushrooms. Pollan reflects on the perplexity of the experience:
In a certain light at certain moments, I feel as though I had had some kind of spiritual experience. I had felt the personhood of other beings in a way I hadn’t before; whatever it is that keeps us from feeling our full implication in nature had been temporarily in abeyance. There had also been, I felt, an opening of the heart, toward my parents, yes, and toward Judith, but also, weirdly, toward some of the plants and trees and birds and even the damn bugs on our property. Some of this openness has persisted. I think back on it now as an experience of wonder and immanence.
The fact that this transformation of my familiar world into something I can only describe as numinous was occasioned by the eating of a little brown mushroom that Stamets and I had found growing on the edge of a parking lot in a state park on the Pacific coast — well, that fact can be viewed in one of two ways: either as an additional wonder or as support for a more prosaic and materialist interpretation of what happened to me that August afternoon. According to one interpretation, I had had “a drug experience,” plain and simple. It was a kind of waking dream, interesting and pleasurable but signifying nothing. The psilocin in that mushroom unlocked the 5-hydroxytryptamine 2-A receptors in my brain, causing them to fire wildly and set off a cascade of disordered mental events that, among other things, permitted some thoughts and feelings, presumably from my subconscious (and, perhaps, my reading too), to get cross-wired with my visual cortex as it was processing images of the trees and plants and insects in my field of vision.
Not quite a hallucination, “projection” is probably the psychological term for this phenomenon: when we mix our emotions with certain objects that then reflect those feelings back to us so that they appear to glisten with meaning. T. S. Eliot called these things and situations the “objective correlatives” of human emotion.
Pollan finds in the experience an affirmation of James’s notion that we possess different modes of consciousness separated from our standard waking consciousness by a thin and permeable membrane. The psychedelic puncturing of that membrane, he suggests, is what people across the ages have considered “mystical experiences.” But they are purely biochemical, devoid of the divine visitations ascribed to them:
I’m struck by the fact there was nothing supernatural about my heightened perceptions that afternoon, nothing that I needed an idea of magic or a divinity to explain. No, all it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities — call them spirits if you like — other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.
Before this afternoon, I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural — of God, of a Beyond — but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think.
After another psychedelic journey on the drug LSD, which left him with “a cascading dam break of love” for everyone from his wife to his grandmother to his awkward childhood music teacher, Pollan reflects on some of the things he had said during the experience, recorded by his guide, and the limitations of language in conveying the depth and dimension of the feelings stirred in him. A century after William James listed ineffability as the first of the four features of transcendent experiences, Pollan writes:
It embarrasses me to write these words; they sound so thin, so banal. This is a failure of my language, no doubt, but perhaps it is not only that. Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.
Psychedelics can make even the most cynical of us into fervent evangelists of the obvious… For what after all is the sense of banality, or the ironic perspective, if not two of the sturdier defenses the adult ego deploys to keep from being overwhelmed — by our emotions, certainly, but perhaps also by our senses, which are liable at any time to astonish us with news of the sheer wonder of the world. If we are ever to get through the day, we need to put most of what we perceive into boxes neatly labeled “Known,” to be quickly shelved with little thought to the marvels therein, and “Novel,” to which, understandably, we pay more attention, at least until it isn’t that anymore. A psychedelic is liable to take all the boxes off the shelf, open and remove even the most familiar items, turning them over and imaginatively scrubbing them until they shine once again with the light of first sight. Is this reclassification of the familiar a waste of time? If it is, then so is a lot of art. It seems to me there is great value in such renovation, the more so as we grow older and come to think we’ve seen and felt it all before.
In a passage that calls to mind Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stunning description of the transcendent state between wakefulness and sleep, Pollan writes:
Because the acid had not completely dissolved my ego, I never completely lost the ability to redirect the stream of my consciousness or the awareness it was in fact mine. But the stream itself felt distinctly different, less subject to will or outside interference. It reminded me of the pleasantly bizarre mental space that sometimes opens up at night in bed when we’re poised between the states of being awake and falling asleep—so-called hypnagogic consciousness. The ego seems to sign off a few moments before the rest of the mind does, leaving the field of consciousness unsupervised and vulnerable to gentle eruptions of imagery and hallucinatory snatches of narrative. Imagine that state extended indefinitely, yet with some ability to direct your attention to this or that, as if in an especially vivid and absorbing daydream. Unlike a daydream, however, you are fully present to the contents of whatever narrative is unfolding, completely inside it and beyond the reach of distraction. I had little choice but to obey the daydream’s logic, its ontological and epistemological rules, until, either by force of will or by the fresh notes of a new song, the mental channel would change and I would find myself somewhere else entirely.
For me it felt less like a drug experience… than a novel mode of cognition, falling somewhere between intellection and feeling.
Temporarily freed from the tyranny of the ego, with its maddeningly reflexive reactions and its pinched conception of one’s self-interest, we get to experience an extreme version of Keats’s “negative capability” — the ability to exist amid doubts and mysteries without reflexively reaching for certainty. To cultivate this mode of consciousness, with its exceptional degree of selflessness (literally!), requires us to transcend our subjectivity or — it comes to the same thing — widen its circle so far that it takes in, besides ourselves, other people and, beyond that, all of nature. Now I understood how a psychedelic could help us to make precisely that move, from the first-person singular to the plural and beyond. Under its influence, a sense of our interconnectedness — that platitude — is felt, becomes flesh. Though this perspective is not something a chemical can sustain for more than a few hours, those hours can give us an opportunity to see how it might go. And perhaps to practice being there.
Looking back on his theoretical and empirical investigation — his research on the ancient history and modern science of psychedelics; his interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, mycologists, hospice patients, and ordinary psychonauts; his own experience with a variety of these substances and his sometimes meticulous, sometimes messy field notes on the interiority of his mind under their influence — Pollan writes:
The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; in fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress. But the ego, that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle. Deeming itself indispensable, it will battle against its diminishment, whether in advance or in the middle of the journey. I suspect that’s exactly what mine was up to all through the sleepless nights that preceded each of my trips, striving to convince me that I was risking everything, when really all I was putting at risk was its sovereignty… That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality… It’s really good at performing all those activities that natural selection values: getting ahead, getting liked and loved, getting fed, getting laid. Keeping us on task, it is a ferocious editor of anything that might distract us from the work at hand, whether that means regulating our access to memories and strong emotions from within or news of the world without.
What of the world it does admit it tends to objectify, for the ego wants to reserve the gifts of subjectivity to itself. That’s why it fails to see that there is a whole world of souls and spirits out there, by which I simply mean subjectivities other than our own. It was only when the voice of my ego was quieted by psilocybin that I was able to sense that the plants in my garden had a spirit too.
It is a notion evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s conception of poetry as a means to “subjectifying the universe” — a counterpoint to the way science objectifies it. “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates,” Le Guin wrote. Perhaps psychedelics, then, are a portal to the poetic truth that resides beyond scientific fact — the kind of transcendence Rachel Carson found in beholding the marvels of bioluminescence, “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.” Such a feeling radiates beyond the walls of the ego-bound self and into a deep sense of belonging to the whole of nature, part and particle of the universe.
The usual antonym for the word “spiritual” is “material.” That at least is what I believed when I began this inquiry — that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for “spiritual” might be “egotistical.” Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic — that is, more spiritual — idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love, however defined, seems to figure prominently.
One of the gifts of psychedelics is the way they reanimate the world, as if they were distributing the blessings of consciousness more widely and evenly over the landscape, in the process breaking the human monopoly on subjectivity that we moderns take as a given. To us, we are the world’s only conscious subjects, with the rest of creation made up of objects; to the more egotistical among us, even other people count as objects. Psychedelic consciousness overturns that view, by granting us a wider, more generous lens through which we can glimpse the subject-hood — the spirit! — of everything, animal, vegetable, even mineral, all of it now somehow returning our gaze. Spirits, it seems, are everywhere. New rays of relation appear between us and all the world’s Others.
In the remainder of the immensely fascinating How to Change Your Mind, Pollan goes on to explore the neuroscience of what actually happens in the brain during a psychedelic experience, how such a temporary rewiring of the cognitive apparatus can translate into enduring psychological change and precipitate profound personal growth, and why this breaking down of “the usually firm handshake between brain and world” may be particularly palliative to those perched on the precipice of mortality. Complement it with Albert Camus on consciousness and the lacuna between truth and meaning, then revisit William James’s trailblazing treatise on the limits of materialism.
Ketamine — used legally as an anesthetic and illegally in club settings — is emerging as a potential new treatment for some types of depression.
A new study found that ketamine was better at curbing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients than a sedative.
Researchers have called ketamine “the most important discovery in half a century.”
We visited a ketamine clinic that offers 45-minute infusions of the therapy in San Francisco.
After a 45-minute infusion of ketamine, clients at a clinic in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood are not partying.
Instead, they’re in a state of quiet contemplation — reclining on cushioned chairs, listening to music, or occasionally striking a tranquil yoga pose.
These clients are patients at one of ten ketamine clinics operated by Actify Neurotherapies, a network that offers the treatments to people diagnosed with severe forms of anxiety and depression. Ketamine is best known for its illegal recreational uses — it is a powerful dissociative that can induce feelings of being separated from one’s own body. But it is also one of the safest and most widely used legal anesthetics. And ketamine’s utility as an antidepressant has recently started to gain attention.
The US Food and Drug Administration has not approved ketamine for the treatment of anxiety or depression, so clinics that offer it for these uses are doing so off-label. Actify Neurotherapies is one of an estimated 50 to 100 such clinics taking the same approach across the US.
The potential promise of ketamine
Actify Neurotherapies’ San Francisco office is a cross between clinical and therapeutic. In each treatment room, a reclining clinical chair sits facing a large window. In the corner is a chair decorated with a colorful crocheted blanket.
Erin Brodwin / Business Insider
“We’re striking a balance between a clinical setting and a home setting,” Steve Levine, a psychiatrist and the CEO of Actify Neurotherapies, told Business Insider.
Each two-hour visit includes 45 minutes of ketamine infusion, 45 minutes of a saline drip, and a consultation with Alison McInnes, a physician who founded a regional ketamine therapy program with Kaiser Permanente.
“Therapy and ketamine go together like peanut butter and chocolate,” Levine said. “And with our approach, you have someone with an extensive background in mental health and therapy always present, and talk therapy happens before and after the infusion.”
The latest research on ketamine’s potential to treat depression — specifically the deadliest complication of the disorder, suicide — was published in December in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The Columbia University researchers found that ketamine did a significantly better job of curbing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients than a commonly prescribed sedative.
Psychedelic Renaissance Is Bringing An Era of Incredible Natural Medicine
Every few years, there is a surge in scientific interest followed by breathless proclamations of the long-awaited psychedelic renaissance. It is now entering a new stage, with a series of startling insights gracing the pages of leading journals and clinical trials making progress.
The story always follows the same arc: psychedelic therapy showed huge promise in the 1950s, was crushed by the establishment in the late 1960s and is now being revived by a group of fearless visionaries. In five years, 10 at the most, doctors will be routinely prescribing LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and other psychedelic drugs for a range of conditions.
“Psychedelics” are substances with the ability to expand human awareness beyond our normal modes of perception. Some may be the most amazing substances known to humanity, so potent that just 1/10,000th of a gram can send one on a journey beyond time and space, beyond life and death.
On the back of encouraging results from clinical trials and brain scans, scientists are again confidently asserting that psychedelics are on the verge of medical approval.
“Scientists are again making confident assertions that psychedelics are on the verge of medical approval”
So is it really different this time? We cannot know the future, but there are a number of reasons to believe that psychedelic medicine really can break out of its ghetto and into the mainstream.
One is that the grey-suited establishment is more receptive than it was a decade ago. Back then, psychedelic research operated under a cloud, always scratching around for money and constantly butting up against onerous drug laws. But the times they are a-changin’, with money flowing from mainstream sources and noises emanating from the US Food and Drug Administration and others about loosening the regulatory straitjacket. Can it be a coincidence that the people now occupying positions of power lived through the acid, ecstasy and shroom-fuelled youth culture of the late 80s and early 90s?
More still needs to be done. The law remains excessively tight: psychedelics are still schedule 1 drugs, which means they have no acknowledged uses in medicine. The onus is on scientists to show conclusively that they do.
Some of the scientists also need to embrace the system rather than pushing against it. Talk to many a psychedelics researcher and it doesn’t take long to hear complaints of risk-averse funders and regulators. Enough. The outlaw-maverick pose was once an asset in this field; it is increasingly becoming a liability.
It may transpire that, as with so many drugs, the early promise melts away under the glare of full-scale clinical trials. Such is life in pharma research. What must not be allowed to happen is for these promising and much-needed drugs to fail for anything other than the purest of scientific reasons.
While the psychedelic state has been previously compared with dreaming, the opposite effect has been observed in the brain network from which we get our sense of “self” (called the default-mode network or ego-system). Put simply, while activity became “louder” in the emotion system, it became more disjointed and so “quieter” in the ego system.
The first study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, revealed decreases in brain activity after injection of psilocybin that were localized to the default-mode network.
It’s hard to argue. Mental illness has reached crisis proportions, yet we still have no clear links between psychiatric diagnoses and what’s going on in the brain — and no effective new classes of drugs. There is one group of compounds that shows promise. They seem to be capable of alleviating symptoms for long periods, in some cases with just a single dose. The catch is that these substances, known as psychedelics, have been outlawed for decades.
A psychedelic renaissance has been feted many times, without ever delivering on the high hopes. But this time feels different. Now there is a growing band of respected scientists whose rigorous work is finally bearing fruit — not only in terms of benefits for patients, but also unprecedented insights into how psychedelics reset the brain. If the latest results stand up to closer scrutiny, they will transform the way we understand and treat mental illnesses.
“The psychedelic revival is finally bearing fruit with a series of startling results”
In the meantime, treatment for depression, the most common mental illness, came to be dominated by drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which boost levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in synapses by blocking its reabsorption by neurons. Their success in early trials fuelled the idea that depression is caused by a deficiency in serotonin. But recently, this idea has been called into question, as more and more studies suggest SSRIs aren’t as effective as we thought.
That comes as no surprise to many psychiatrists. Despite their ubiquity — 8.5 percent of people in the US take them — SSRIs work for just 1 in 5 people. Even when they do work, there are problems, not least that coming off the drugs brings severe side effects. The picture is no less grim for other mental illnesses: there is a chronic shortage of new treatments and precious few ideas about where fresh options might come from.
MDMA, better known as the party drug ecstasy, is the furthest along. Although not a classic psychedelic in that it doesn’t induce hallucinations, MDMA works by flooding the brain with serotonin, which makes users feel euphoric. These mood-altering effects are the reason researchers became interested in using it as a tool to assist psychotherapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD will affect roughly 7 percent of people in the US at some point in their lives. The most effective treatment involves memory reconsolidation. People are asked to recall traumatic events so that their memories of them can be stripped of fearful associations by processing them in a new way. The problem is that recall can sometimes be so terrifying that they have to stop receiving this form of therapy. MDMA appears to help, not only because it extinguishes anxiety and stress, but also because it triggers the release of oxytocin, a pro-social hormone that strengthens feelings of trust towards therapists.
Last year, at the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference in Oakland, California, a group led by Michael Mithoefer at the Medical University of South Carolina presented results from trials in which 107 people with PTSD underwent a psychotherapy while under the influence of MDMA. A year or so after having the therapy, roughly 67 percent of them no longer had PTSD, according to a measure based on symptoms such as anxiety levels and frequency of nightmares. About 23 percent of the control group, which had psychotherapy and a placebo drug, got the same benefit.
Healing TripMeanwhile, Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, has been working with people with depression that has resisted all available treatments. In a trial involving 20 people, participants had two sessions — one on a single low dose of psilocybin (10 milligrams), one on a single high dose (25 mg) — during which they each separately lay listening to specially chosen music, accompanied by therapists.
That is in stark contrast to the best available antidepressants. “What’s weird and so different about these [psychedelics] is that we’re talking about a single dose having long-term effects,” says Insel, now at a start-up called Mindstrong. “That’s a remarkably different approach to what we’ve been doing, with drugs that people take chronically.”
Hints as to why psychedelics work so quickly and so enduringly have come from brain scans. Since 2010, Carhart-Harris has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people without mental illness while they are experiencing the effects of different psychedelic drugs. He has found that LSD and psilocybin both cause activity in parts of the brain that normally work separately to become more synchronous, meaning the neurons fire at the same time. In addition, connectivity across a collection of brain regions called the “default mode network”, which is linked to our sense of self, or ego, is drastically reduced. The more this network disintegrates, the more volunteers report a dissolving of the boundaries between themselves and the world around them.
Carhart-Harris thinks psilocybin therapy interrupts the spirals of rumination and negative thoughts that depressed people get caught up in. In that sense, it seemed telling that people in his psilocybin-for-depression trial who experienced aspects of a spiritual or mystical experience saw a bigger decrease in their depression scores than those who didn’t.
The biggest danger now might be that history repeats itself. The first wave of psychedelics research was to a great extent doomed by excessive enthusiasm. Today, as the revival has gathered steam, some doctors have likewise grown impatient and gone rogue, offering their patients underground psychedelic treatments. Hence the current crop of researchers are at pains to preach patience and rigour.
In a quest to ease pressures on the Brazilian prison system, mental health workers have opted to give prison inmates the psychedelic brew ayahuasca, in the hopes of helping them to work through their deeply-rooted emotional traumas.
It is no secret that the current prison system lies in shambles. Overcrowded holding spaces, abusive staff, unsanitary living conditions — such environments rarely lead to redemption and rehabilitation, but instead almost always seed further violence, aggression, and feelings of alienation from society.
While some prisons are now offering holistic services such as yoga, meditation, and Reiki, prisoners’ rights advocacy group Acuda is taking it one step further, offering Brazilian prisoners a real shot at a new life through the use of the traditional Amazonian brew, ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca is a psychoactive brew that combines a specific Amazonian vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) with a leaf (Psychotria viridis), creating an extremely pungent, orally-active cocktail of DMT, a powerful psychedelic known to induce mystical and life-changing experiences for its user.
At first, Acuda had trouble finding a place where the inmates could drink the ayahuasca, but they were finally accepted by an offshoot of Santo Daime, a Brazilian religion founded in the 1930s that blends Catholicism, African traditions, and the trance communications with spirits popularized in the 19th century by a Frenchman known as Allan Kardec.
“Many people in Brazil believe that inmates must suffer, enduring hunger and depravity,” said Euza Beloti, a psychologist with Acuda, to the New York Times. “This thinking bolsters a system where prisoners return to society more violent than when they entered prison. [At Acuda] we simply see inmates as human beings with the capacity to change.”
Supervisors at Acuda, who obtain a judge’s permission to take about 15 prisoners once a month to the temple ceremony, say they are mindful of the risks of ayahuasca, commonly called Daime in Brazil or referred to as tea. At the same time, Acuda’s therapists consume the brew with the inmates, as well as with the occasional prison guard who volunteers to accompany the group.
“This is how it should be,” said Virgílio Siqueira, 55, a retired police officer who works as a guard at the prison complex that includes Acuda. “It’s gratifying to know that we can sit here in the forest, drink our Daime, sing our hymns, exist in peace.”
— A groundbreaking new study shows that magic mushrooms may actually be an effective treatment for people with depression. Researchers from Imperial College London found that patients taking psilocybin, the psychoactive compound that occurs naturally in magic mushrooms, showed reduced symptoms weeks after treatment following a “reset” of their brains.
In the clinical trials, patients with treatment-resistant depression received two doses of psilocybin — 10 mg followed by 25 mg, one-week apart — while researchers focused on changes in brain function before and after treatment with the drug. The findings showed that the treatment produced “rapid and sustained antidepressant effects.”
Comparisons of images of patients’ brains before and after treatment with psilocybin showed reduced blood flow in areas of the brain responsible for processing emotional responses like stress and fear. Researchers found increased stability in another brain network that has been previously linked to psilocybin’s immediate effects, as well as to depression itself.
The small study of 19 people was led by Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, who said:
“We have shown for the first time clear changes in brain activity in depressed people treated with psilocybin after failing to respond to conventional treatments.
“Several of our patients described feeling ‘reset’ after the treatment and often used computer analogies. For example, one said he felt like his brain had been ‘defragged’ like a computer hard drive, and another said he felt ‘rebooted.’
“Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary ‘kick start’ they need to break out of their depressive states and these imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy. Similar brain effects to these have been seen with electroconvulsive therapy.”
In addition, the trials revealed that patients scoring highest on “peak” or “mystical” experience showed a more significant change. This is consistent with findings from previous studies that have shown that such experiences can lead to long-term changes in the behaviors, attitudes, and values of patients treated with psilocybin.
“Our citizens should know the urgent facts…but they don’t because our media serves imperial, not popular interests. They lie, deceive, connive and suppress what everyone needs to know, substituting managed news misinformation and rubbish for hard truths…”—Oliver Stone