The Role of Psychedelics

Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psychedelics are having a renaissance. A new generation of scientists, many of them inspired by their own personal experience of the compounds, are testing their potential to heal mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Other scientists are using psychedelics in conjunction with new brain-imaging tools to explore the links between brain and mind, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of consciousness.

Michael Pollan

With the release of ‘Fantastic Fungi’ and ‘Dosed’ as a backdrop, I feel like I can finally talk about the use of psychedelics without stigmatisation. The context is now set and the time frame too urgent not to expand and extrapolate on psychedelics, which I believe could become an important factor in the coming decades. Though they are still classified as Class A and could get you 7 years in prison plus an unlimited fine for possession, the overwhelming scientific evidence that are pouring out of the research is proof of its efficacy as medicine.

With the lock down in place, isolation, loneliness and financial struggles are having a devastating effect on people struggling with anxiety and depression. It’s looking likely that we may enter a period of mental health crisis after the virus subsides. It is with this realisation that I’ve decided to properly write up on this mysterious category of drugs called psychedelics. Not to endorse its illegal use, but for the readers to be well informed when the time comes to vote on its medicinal use. And to spread the knowledge of a powerful cure that’s just over the horizon. If you are new to the idea, please suspend the disbelief, watch the films linked above and look at the scientific data.

Why Magic Mushrooms?

So many people currently suffer from depression and anxiety that traces of antidepressants and benzodiazepines can be measured in our tap water, since the drugs remains stable through waste water treatment and enters back into our drinking water. Those who are suffering from mental illness or know friends and family members who do will probably be aware that some antidepressants are only slightly better than placebo and often requires ongoing use riddled with side effects – some more serious than others. Up to a third do not respond to several courses of treatments and classified as Treatment Resistant Depression.

But a small group of scientists in the 90’s resurrected studies for the use of psilocybin in psychiatric treatment. Now with ever mounting evidence, the active compound in magic mushrooms is seen by many as the miracle cure and for good reasons.

  1. As Michael Pollan puts it bluntly, a psilocybin treatment only requires 1, 2 or 3 doses at most which is not a good business model for pharmaceutical companies whose preference is for expensive drugs requiring life long dependency. Ponder on that thought for a minute. Profit seeking corporations in charge of our health is a sure path to disaster and the larger consequences of this can be seen currently unraveling in the US.
  2. Psychedelic mushrooms are said to be some of the safest drugs in the world. The LD50, a measure of toxicity, is 1.5 times that of caffeine meaning caffeine is more likely to kill you. To overdose, you would need to consume 17kg of fresh mushrooms or 1.7kg dried – both of which is near impossible to do without vomiting.
  3. From eliminating depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients, quitting smoking to reducing the crime rate, its use could profoundly alter our society for the better. And the effects are sustained over a very long time span suggesting some fundamental changes in the way our mind works.

Take, for example, the large scale study on Journal of Psychopharmacology that tracked 480,000 people over 12 years reporting that a single use of psychedelics mounted to 12 to 18% reduction in violent crimes and 27% reduction in theft. Can you imagine the enormous cost savings from the police force, legal expenses, jail spaces, compensations and treatment of PTSD left on the victims? For a mere 6 hours trip.

It’s important to note at this point that those at risk of psychosis should avoid psychedelics and psychedelic therapy should be done in a controlled setting with pre and post trip integration with a qualified therapist. If you’d like to enroll on clinical trials, here’s the link.

How Does It Work?

It’s still veiled in mystery as to the exact function psilocybin plays in the treatment but we do know that psilocybin behaves very differently dependent on the dose. At sub threshold microdose of 1/10 of a gram taken intermittently appears to trigger neurogenesys (growth of new neurons in our brains), mood elevation and help increase our capacity for creativity. Medium dose of 2 to 3 grams can alter our experience of nature, overlaying our visual field with geometric fractals and greatly heightening our senses. At a therapeutic dose of 5 or more grams, we may experience ego dissolution and profound changes to how our brain functions.

The most effective at treating depression appears to be at higher therapeutic doses which can induce boundary dissolution. It breaks down the boundary between our ego and the rest of the world, often resulting in profound sense of love, connection to the world and gratitude. Michael Pollan describes the effect eloquently by comparing the thought habits of addiction, PTSD, depression and anxiety as pathways in our brains that are most trodden. The frequent crossing between these thoughts will deepen the grooves in our minds and make it very difficult to change the path. ‘I feel stressed so I must smoke’ or ‘I am not worthy of love therefore I must die’ are just a couple of examples of persistent thought habits. But a high dose psychedelic experience appears to be able to flatten the deep mental grooves and allow us to establish new thought pathways.

With regards to my own journey, I have been absolutely captivated by psychedelics since my teenage days when the realisation suddenly hit me – that a tiny dose (a few hundred micrograms in the case of LSD) can completely alter my consciousness and fill my visual field with unbelievable geometric patterns. It really challenged me to think what I consider as base reality. Is it really as reliable and stable as we might think? Are we not also hallucinating reality in our brains through the same electrical impulses and bio-mechanical algorithms? Why is this class of substance so safe and we seem to have the perfect receptors in our brains? Could we have evolved along side them? Could the fact that so many indigenous communities have had deep rooted history of hallucinogenic use be seen as evidence?

I became fascinated by spiritualism precisely because I didn’t get it. What is it that draws so many? What do buddhist monks or yoga practitioners see at the height of their meditation practice? What did these entheogens show to our ancestors living on vast plains of Africa, cold tundras of Siberia and dense jungles of Americas? What did they see on cave walls wavering gently with fire? Or in the dense smoke inside a shaman’s hut? As a cautious agnostic, I’ve always approached this subject with a curious, critical and open mindset. Only evidence will convince me. But one thing was clear, I am not the type that can endure decades of meditation training just to see if I can experience something spiritual.

But I figured that if it’s as safe as it is and with a decent chance that we’ve co-evolved with psychedelics, this was a viable shortcut to experience what people were reporting.

My Trip Report

As noted in previous paragraphs, there are multiple ways in which mushrooms could be used dependent on the dose. But my main goal was to experience something spiritual, so I’ve incrementally increased the dose to extreme levels until one day, I was able to take a combination of various psychedelics that allowed me to experience something utterly life changing.

As I inhaled, I noticed the lines and shapes of my surroundings turn into small blocks which began to move in synchronicity. The vibrations became exponentially faster becoming brighter by the second. The light began to course upwards at terrifying speed, catapulting me into a state of non-physical entity completely gob smacked and forgetting to breathe. I gasped for air as every atom in my body began to resonate in absolute unison to the vibrations of the universe. Tears were streaming uncontrollably. I experienced, for the first time, what it feels like to be one and the same. The utter dissolution of my ego shuddered my entire being with a sense of primal fear, of whether I could actually return to my self.

As I continued to propel to the speed of light, I experienced for a brief moment death by astonishment and awoke basking in magnificence and complexity beyond human imagination. It would take an eternity to describe with words the immense energy that I felt in touch with. The awe of being, the sheer marvel of existence was so profound, so intense, I couldn’t take much more of it. I would disintegrate. In that moment, I understood for the first time the true meaning of God.

With that, I can safely say that I have had a spiritual experience without taking a leap of ‘faith’. Sure, it took a fair amount of faith on whether I could return to my psyche but it certainly didn’t require me to ‘believe’ in something invisible. From a more rational perspective, small molecules in my brain helped hallucinate it. But a strong feeling of the experience being ‘real’ still continues to linger on. It’s as if I’ve tapped into some kind of universal truth momentarily. And it’s a common effect reported widely. What does this mean? What could this possibly mean? I remain undecided and will hold from rushing to conclusions.

As I returned back to my Earthly body, I was overwhelmed by an intense feeling of gratitude and my mind was flooded with people I have not spoken to for a while, people I may have hurt, people I love that I haven’t told them I love them for a while. The boundary dissolution equals greater empathy. This is also another well known effect of psychedelics. That profound feeling of being connected to everything makes you feel truly empathetic to all forms of life. Why is this not a good thing? A necessary one perhaps?

Where Does This Belong?

A few thousand years of written history is nothing compared to the expansive amount of time homo sapiens have evolved on Earth, and the time apes have existed is a blip compared to fungi – the oldest multi-cellular life form on Earth. Afterall, we’ve evolved from the kingdom of fungi – the evolutionary mother of our species feeds us, heals us, kills us and recycles us. It’s highly probable that some form of evolutionary selection may well have influenced our co-evolution with psychedelic mushrooms. Those who paired with the mushrooms performed better with increased cognition and memory, showed empathy in a social dynamic, had reduced fear response and were able to reproduce more offspring.

Neural connections firing on psilocybin

With the virus pandemic sweeping across the world, many of us are perhaps at a point where our normal behaviours are disrupted and open to interesting ideas. As we move forward through multiple historical changes, it’s worth considering the idea of reintroducing psychedelics as a medicine, first as a treatment for mental illness but eventually also for our spiritual well being. It is worth pondering on the possibility that perhaps our catastrophic disassociation from nature and such diminished capacity for empathy could be the result of cutting our evolutionary ties with these mushrooms. Just imagine what could be achieved if our politicians, bankers and billionaires as well as each and everyone of us were given the opportunity to level our ego and help us experience being part of a wider network of life bound together by mycelium.

We may have lost paganism and animism, and I don’t see myself or others believing in them anytime soon. But I do think it’s possible for us to be moved deeply by the sheer beauty of nature and maintain respect for the intrinsic value of our wilderness. We desperately need to get more people to fundamentally alter their way of life, their perception of what is important and psychedelics could play a key part in it. As overwhelming scientific evidence begins to breakdown the social norms created by misinformation and propaganda, let’s hope these powerful medicines are welcomed first as the safest, most effective treatment for depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD.

Given all of this, it is within reason to extrapolate and envision a world in the future where it could be used by many as an annual reset of our minds, to remind ourselves of the most important things and to reconnect to nature as did our ancestors.

For further exposure, check out Sam Harris’ podcast here. And a video with Michael Pollan and Robin Carhart Harris in conversation below. If you enjoy scientific data, Paul Stamets curates interesting research on fungi here – His talks on youtube are amazing too.

“Psychedelics (will) be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope is for astronomy”

Stanislav Grof

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