The Mainstream is (Finally) Getting Behind the Current Psychedelic Renaissance
Psychedelic drugs were the “it” thing in the Western world of medicine back in the ‘50s. Word had spread that psychedelics could treat difficult psychological conditions like alcoholism, and researchers went into overdrive to confirm their therapeutic effects. But by the ‘70s, they earned a bad reputation as dangerous drugs and became illegal.
Fast forward to 2019, and we now seem to be in the midst of a psychedelics renaissance. Both society and regulatory authorities are wondering whether the ill-famed dance floor drugs can help heal the psyche if taken in controlled environments.
Mirroring the trend is Michael Pollan, a best-selling author who recently published a wildly popular book outlining his accounts of psychedelic therapy.
Pollan grew curious after hearing that terminal cancer patients were receiving psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – to face fear of death. And so, the doubtful author set out to try the therapy himself in a guided setting. In an interview with NPR, he described how the therapy switched off his inner voice, boosting well-being afterwards.
“I found myself in this place where I could no longer control my perceptions at all, and I felt my sense of self scatter to the wind — almost as if a pile of post-its had been released to the wind — but I was fine with it. I didn’t feel any desire to pile the papers back together into my customary self,” he explained. “What I brought back from that experience was that I’m not identical to my ego, that there is another ground on which to plant our feet and that our ego is kind of this character that is chattering neurotically in our minds.”
He thinks that for cancer patients, the mystical experience makes it easier for people to let go.
“I think some of it has to do with the fact that you do experience the “extinction” of yourself and it’s kind of a rehearsal for death,” he continues. “And I think that may be part of what helps people, that they expand their sense of what is your self-interest and your self-interest is something larger than what is contained by your skin. And when you have that recognition, I think dying becomes a little easier.”
The New Science of Psychedelics
Tough laws have made research on psychedelic compounds extremely difficult, but that has started to change course.
In summer 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated MDMA – aka ecstasy – as a “breakthrough therapy” for PTSD. MDMA is thought to mellow down emotional responses when people sense sounds or smells that trigger traumatizing memories. With the breakthrough therapy status, the drug is on fast-track for approval in clinical use.
“This is not a big scientific step,” David Nutt, who studies psychedelics at Imperial College London, told Science. “It’s been obvious for 40 years that these drugs are medicines. But it’s a huge step in acceptance.”
In other recent research, psilocybin has shown promise in treating addiction, particularly smoking. Pollan also described anecdotal evidence of people who succeeded.
“[I wanted to understand] how, after a single psilocybin trip, they could decide ‘I’m never going to smoke again’ based on the perspective they had achieved. And they would say things like, ‘Well, I had this amazing experience. I died three times. I sprouted wings. I flew through European histories. I beheld all these wonders. I saw my body on a funeral pyre on the Ganges. And I realized, the universe is so amazing and there’s so much to do in it that killing myself seemed really stupid.’ And that was the insight. Yes, killing yourself is really stupid — but it had an authority it had never had. And that, I think, is the gift of these psychedelics.”
There’s a host of other recent research outcomes that sound promising. For example, psilocybin appears to treat severe depression, and better-quality psychedelic trips seem to have longer-lasting effects.
Just like this, research on psychedelics is kicking off again for the first time in decades. It’s too early to tell for sure, but psychedelics might be a game-changer for mental illnesses that weren’t treatable with conventional therapy.
Cover image: Kelly Knowles