Eclectic Spacewalk #10 - The Second Psychedelic Renaissance

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is undergoing a second renaissance with renewed interest in treating mental ailments such as addiction and the fear of dying.

Read previous post #9 - Consilience (15 minutes)

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Table of Contents:

The Second Psychedelic Renaissance—

  • “Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out.”

  • The Sacred Past

  • The Scientific Present

  • The Sacred-Scientific Future

  • Text (10 books)

  • Audio (5 collections of podcasts)

  • Video Playlist (40 videos)

  • Organizations & other resources (10 websites)

  • What’s Next?

Reading Time: 25-30 minutes (Read the sections you find intriguing, bookmark the media/links, and come back to anytime.)

The Second Psychedelic Renaissance—

Abstract: “Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is undergoing a second renaissance with renewed interest in treating mental ailments such as addiction and the fear of dying. Stanislov Grof, the godfather of this type of therapy, says, ‘potential significance of LSD & other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value of the microscope  for biology or the telescope has for astronomy.’ Now a new generation of scientists are continuing to test psychedelics’ value for not just the ‘sick,’ but also the healthy adult.”

In what would become a prelude to the infamous “Summer of Love,” the Human Be-In event of  January 1967 has largely been forgotten by mainstream history books. In more esoteric circles, the event is known for introducing the term ‘psychedelics’ to regular Americans. The etymology of the word ‘psychedelic' comes from ancient Greek meaning “mind-manifesting” or “soul visible.”

The Human Be-In event was also the setting for Timothy Leary’s famous challenge to the attendees: “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” Leary’s saying would become the scapegoat reason for politicians to clamp down on the incredibly promising psychedelic research in neuroscience that had been taking shape over the preceding decades. Cultural pearl clutching out of fear of uncertainty about chemical compounds influencing the brain had reached fever pitch, thus tipping political fervor to demonization and making them illegal. Even though, unbeknown to most of the general public, the same compounds that were being associated with a growing tide of young people with anti-war values were used in thousands of clinical brain science studies with quite incredible results. “More than 40,000 patients were administered LSD alongside therapy between 1950 and 1965, and more than one thousand scientific papers were published.”

Did you know that??

Try to imagine what 1967 was like. The Vietnam war was in full swing, along with its opposition. A stone's throw away from where the Human Be-In event took place, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was the epicenter of the late 1960s counter culture - aka hippies. Those crazed and ideological young kids upsetting the regular social order of 1950s America by being interested in blasphemous topics like “personal empowerment, cultural and political decentralization, communal living, ecological awareness, higher consciousness (with the aid of psychedelic drugs), acceptance of illicit psychedelics use, and radical liberal political consciousness.”

Leary would explain in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks what he was really trying to get at with his often-misconstrued statement:

"Turn on" meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. "Tune in" meant interacting harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. "Drop out" suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. "Drop Out" meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development are often misinterpreted to mean "Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity."

Regardless of Leary’s intentions, the death knell of the first psychedelic renaissance was struck. An entire generation of critical research, bordering on two, was lost from apprehension of the “bad trip” boogeymen and other fear-mongering reasons not based on science.

The Sacred Past

The Tassili n'Ajjer national park in southeast Algeria is home to ancient rock art carvings (7,000 - 9,000 years old) that point to a lengthy, deep relationship between humans and psychedelic mushrooms, in what was most likely a ritualistic ceremony to ingest a sacrament for mind-altering experiences. The ancient artists must have thought of these mushrooms’ importance enough to carve depictions of them and their users into rock for future generations. Rock art is the first permanent form of visual communication known to mankind. The art in itself can only be described as, and I hate to be cliche: “trippy.”

The author of the paper “The Oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World,” Giorgio Samorini, says that these rock art carvings are particularly interesting as they depict not just people holding mushrooms but also the mind being influenced by the mushrooms.

“One of the most important scenes is to be found in the Tin-Tazarift rock art site, at Tassili…Each dancer holds a mushroom-like object in the right hand and, even more surprising, two parallel lines come out of this object to reach the central part of the head of the dancer, the area of the roots of the two horns. This double line could signify an indirect association or non-material fluid passing from the object held in the right hand and the mind. This interpretation would coincide with the mushroom interpretation if we bear in mind the universal mental value induced by hallucinogenic mushrooms and vegetals, which is often of a mystical and spiritual nature. It would seem that these lines - in themselves an ideogram which represents something non-material in ancient art - represent the effect that the mushroom has on the human mind.”

Ritual dancing was not the only way the rock art carvings depicted mushrooms. An affinity with animals, especially of the four-legged bovine kind, is clear in other examples. It points to a symbiotic relationship between ancient humans constantly following large herds of animals, and the mushrooms that grow on the dung of these animals.

“This specific ecological phenomenon cannot but have been taken into account with regard to the sacramental use of psychotropic mushrooms, leading to the creation of mystico-religious relations between the mushroom and the animal which produces its natural habitat. Furthermore, the dung left by herds of quadrupeds were important clues for prehistoric hunters on the lookout for game, and the deepening of such scatological knowledge probably goes back to the paleolithic period (the long period of the hunter of large game). Thus we have a further argument in favor of the version of events that would have it that there have been mythical associations, with religious interpretations, on different occasions, between the (sacred) animal and the hallucinogenic mushroom.

The urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood is, as Bertrand Russell put it in The Doors of Perception, a “principal appetite of the soul.” From betel petals to cannabis, from san pedro cactus to the poppy, the ancients used the natural ingredients of their environment in a sacred way to expand their own consciousness.

Every human culture since prehistory has had experience with mind-altering substances and could be one of the earliest indicators of religions being formed. Elisa Guerra-Doce, a Spanish archeologist who studies the use of psychoactive substances in ancient cultures, says, “psychoactive plants were woven deeply into belief systems and spiritual practices in every corner of the globe. There are certain scholars who believe that the idea of religion itself emerges from the use of psychoactive plants around the world...We find drugs in tombs, in ceremonial places—always connected with ritual activity.”

I want to drive home the point that for ancient cultures taking psychoactive substances was revered and respected, as one of the most sacred and influential experiences of one’s life. It was the ancient way of seeing behind the curtain of reality. Even more important was to journey back to this existence, hopefully more capable of handling regular life with knowledge gained from the “other side.” In addition to personally journeying, the collective was also influenced by integrating the experience(s) with others in your community who have also gone through this rite of passage.

The Scientific Present

Fast-forwarding a few thousand years to the 1900s, we meet a who’s who of characters in the psycho-pharmacology world that are beginning to poke around with novel compounds. This would begin the first psychedelic renaissance. Anyone dealing with the mind was immediately enthralled by the benefits of these unique chemical structures. Not only was it for people in need but also for those who did not know they needed it. There are enough storylines and character arcs to fill volumes, but here are some historical timeline highlights to cover the broad strokes:

1886: German pharmacologist, Louis Lewin, published the first systematic study of the Peyote cactus.

1914: “Botanist calling himself Mr. W. ingested a psilocybin mushroom for scientific research purposes. Mr. W detailed his experience, which appeared in the September 18th, 1914 issue of Science magazine.”

1938: Albert Hofmann synthesizes LSD-25 for the first time with interesting animal results, but nothing particular of note for humans. Synthesis and study sits on the shelf for 5 years.

April 16th, 1943: Hofmann has an epiphany and reexamines the shelved LSD compound but accidentally absorbs some through his fingernails. In his journal, he wrote, “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state…I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

April 19th, 1943: Hofmann decided to self-experiment, and had the first full-blown acid trip known to mankind. Overcome by the experience, he asked his assistant to join him in a bicycle ride home. Making April 19th famously - Bicycle Day.

The next day, Hofmann said he felt incredible, had a renewed sense of awe, and the knowledge that he had just come into contact with the most potent psychoactive drug mankind has ever produced. He concluded, “This self-experiment showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness.”

1953: Aldous Huxley takes mescaline under the supervision of psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond (who coined the term psychedelic). Huxley wroteThe Doors of Perception the following year about his experience.

1953: CIA conducts Project MKUltra aka “The CIA Mind Control Program”

April 1956: Hungarian physician and chemist Dr. Stephen Szára has the first DMT trip.

1957: Amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson’s photo essayThe Discovery of Mushrooms that Cause Strange Visions is published in LIFE magazine. It chronicles his experience taking psilocybin mushrooms two years earlier, during a Mazatec ritual with curandera Maria Sabina in Oaxaca, Mexico. Wasson and his photographer were seemingly the first Westerners to ever be involved in a Mazatec ceremony.

1958: Writer and lecturer Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern religion to a Western audience, takes LSD for the first time.

1950 - mid1960s: Pioneered by the Godfather of Psychedelics Stanislov Grof, “there are more than a thousand clinical papers (discussing 40,000 patients), several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy.

1960 - March 1962: The Harvard Psilocybin Project run by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) included the Concord Prison Experiment (in which inmates were given psilocybin in an effort to reduce recidivism) and the “Good Friday” experiment (administered psilocybin as a part of a study designed to determine if the drug could facilitate the experience of profound religious states).

May 1962: Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard University and the Psilocybin project was scrapped.

1963: LSD hit the streets in the form of liquid soaked onto sugar cubes

1970: LSD, mescaline, cannabis, and psilocybin classified as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

With the fervent disdain for the counterculture emerging, along with a myriad of other reasons like the Cold War, society shunned these interesting and helpful compounds. This was the end of the first psychedelic renaissance, and an experimental dark ages ensued into the next millennium.

The Sacred-Scientific Future

The second psychedelic renaissance, which continues today, began around 2006 with Johns Hopkins University publishing a study on the increase in “mystical experiences” from psilocybin users. A leak had finally been sprung in the dam that was holding back the psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research body of water!

(The left is your brain on a placebo, the right is your brain on Magic Mushrooms)

Since then, psilocybin has shown promise in treating depression; a single dose can have a lasting personality change, even still having a significant impact five years after treatment. LSD has been shown to help with alleviating severe anxiety symptoms (especially near the end of life), and increased optimism and openness with “no [corresponding] changes in delusional thinking.”

Both LSD & psilocybin are unique and powerful compounds that decrease default mode network activity in the brain (associated with the dissolution of ego), induce a higher state of consciousness, and have no adverse effects on mental health (barring borderline psychotics). MDMA has even shown massive promise for PTSD patients.

With some extra bitcoin handy in 2015, I donated to a crowdfunding project that was trying to produce the world’s first LSD brain-imaging study. A year later, the findings were published. Below is a one-sheet :)

The latest findings in neuroscience point to how our brains filter out the “real world” through evolutionary influenced cerebral shortcuts in everyday waking consciousness. Through years of experience, our brains have gotten pretty good at being a prediction-generating organ. When taking psychedelics, adults can re-tune that prediction model, by having to integrate a completely novel (mystical experience) data point. This can be beneficial for the “sick,” as described in the studies above. But, I also believe it could be the single most important thing a healthy adult can do for themselves psychologically when a new perspective is needed.

An encounter with the sacred through a mystical experience can produce profound emotions like: unity with everything, preciousness about the experience (deserving of respect), noetic (there is something more real and more true then everyday waking consciousness), positive mood and joy, the transcendence of time AND space, ineffability, long-term consequences, integrated senses of appreciation and well-being, and, as Albert Hofmann said, “an understanding of the divine message - in its universal language - would bring an end to the war between the religions of the world.”

Psychedelic assisted psychotherapy will be noted as a turning point in humanity’s study of the brain. The Godfather himself, Stanislov Grof said: “This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.



Video Playlist—

Organizations & other resources—

What’s Next?

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Thank You for your time. Until the next post, Ad Astra!

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