Unveiling the depths of the human psyche: psychedelics may unlock parts of the mind that are normally inaccessible
- Research shows psychedelics may create a mystical experience centered on peace, love, gratitude and open-mindedness that make humans feel more connected with the universe
- Psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin, have been shown effective in the treatment of anxiety, depression and fear of death in cancer patients
- Scientists say psychedelics align the four universal intelligences: the mind, heart, intuition (gut) and body wisdom
- Ninety percent of the world’s cultures use psychedelics for healing and spiritual maturation and understanding
- Psychedelics help unveil the depths of the human psyche, allowing access to parts of the mind that are normally hidden and inaccessible
Peace. Love. Happiness. We, as human beings, sometimes spend our entire lives trying to fulfill an innate yearning for these deep-rooted emotions, which provide a unique feeling of interconnectedness that makes us feel one with nature and the universe as a whole. Unfortunately, Western culture is largely characterized by materialism, unrealistic demands from both our personal and professional lives and constant overstimulation, i.e., the need to be “plugged in” at all times.
These misguided forms of energy often lead to debilitating health conditions such as unmanageable worry, anxiety and depression. But what if there were something in nature that could help us escape from these unnatural distractions and the pain and discomfort that so often follows? Some scientists say there is, and that that something lies in the realm of psychedelics.
The featured video, “Johns Hopkins Psilocybin Project,” is a documentary produced for the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection1 at Purdue University’s library archive, which was established in 2006 through a generous gift from the Betsy Gordon Foundation.
The purpose of the research collection is to record “the history of psychoactive substances and their applications for medicine and healing.” The collection includes materials such as research notes, photographs and firsthand accounts from research participants that document “the lives and work of researchers in the field.”
"Materials for this collection are typically acquired from chemists, pharmacologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and other researchers who have worked firsthand with psychedelic substances," says Stephanie Schmitz, the France A. Córdova archivist.
Psychedelics and Their Benefits to Medicine and Healing
So, what exactly are psychedelics? Psychedelics, also called psychoactive substances or classic hallucinogens, include LSD (blotter), psilocybin (mushrooms), DMT (toad) and mescaline (peyote cactus). While these substances have been demonized in many Western cultures, research shows that psychedelics — when used appropriately — offer incredible medicinal benefits, including the ability to and, in some cases, permanently alleviate anxiety and depression.
Psychedelics have also shown to be helpful in reducing fear of death and anxiety in cancer patients.2 When we think of important milestones in our lives, we think about falling in love, getting married or having kids, and for those who have tried it, taking LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) can be one of life’s most pivotal moments, says David E. Nichols, Ph.D., former pharmacology professor and distinguished chair in pharmacology at Purdue University.
Nichols, who retired in 2012, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on psychedelics. LSD diffuses into your brain for three to four hours, and it diffuses out — leading some to never see the world the same way again, says Nichols. This proved true for Frances Vaughan, who under carefully controlled conditions, was given a high dose of LSD. Her experience was so powerful that it changed her life forever, and in a good way.
Transcendence of Time and Space
In 1965, looking for adventure and exploration, Vaughan and her husband participated in early research in psychedelics at the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park. After passing all of the screening tests, they were given a high dose of LSD under the care of researchers. Vaughan says she’s able to discuss the memory of the experience, but struggles to put into words what it was actually like.
For Vaughan, taking LSD was a deep mystical experience that dissolved the boundaries between self and other, allowing her to feel one with everything. The self was no longer a separate entity, she says, adding that she came to a realization that truth takes many forms of expression, but in some way all traditions point to the same deep underlying reality. “I felt deep insight into several clichés, such as God is love; the truth will set you free; and love is at the heart of the universe,” she says.
The doors of perception were not only cleansed, but they disappeared altogether, says Vaughan. She also reported a feeling of transcendence of time and space, a sense of interconnectedness with all things, gratitude, peace, love and the opening of her heart.
Vaughan was so moved by the experience that she went on to become a pioneer in the field of transpersonal psychology,3 a practice characterized as an attempt to understand the different states of consciousness (and varying views of reality) that were revealed through experimentation with psychedelics. She went back to school to study psychology and become a psychotherapist before writing a book on intuition, titled “Awakening Intuition,”4 — a publication considered breakthrough research at the time it was published in 1979.
Most of the World’s Cultures Use Psychedelics for Healing and Spiritual Maturation
Arguably, one of the biggest downfalls in Western medicine, and Western culture in general, is its over-concentrated focus on the ordinary, waking state. Western medicine pays essentially no attention to altered states, says Dr. Roger Walsh, psychiatrist, professor and co-editor of the book “Higher Wisdom.”5
Our culture is rare cross-culturally in that it doesn’t use psychedelics for healing and spiritual purposes, he adds. Meanwhile, up to 90 percent of the world’s cultures use altered states of consciousness and psychedelics for healing and spiritual maturation and understanding.
Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., cultural anthropologist and author of “The Four-Fold Way,”6 agrees. “Indigenous cultures have worked with plant medicines since the beginning of time,” says Arrien, adding that the drugs allow you to unveil aspects of mind that are typically hidden and inaccessible to us.
Some researchers say psychedelics align the four universal intelligences: the mind, heart, intuition or the gut and body wisdom. Others say the substances act as amplifiers, meaning they amplify your current state. James Fadiman, Ph.D., author of “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide,”7 experienced this amplification firsthand. Like Vaughan, Fadiman came into his work after having a powerful, mystical experience with psychedelics.
He was a graduate student at Stanford University when he took a course with professor Willis Harman, who was working with the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park. Harman invited Fadiman to participate in a study during which he was given 200 mcg of LSD.
“I put on some eye shades, laid down on the couch and listened to music,” says Fadiman. “My disinterest in spiritual things was as valid as a 10-year-old’s disinterest in sex,” he says. In other words, “it came out of a total unawareness of what the rest of the world was built on.”
During the experience, Fadiman says he went to a place where there was total aloneness and separation from the universe. But at the peak of his experience, Fadiman felt what many others have reported: feelings of gratitude, enlightenment and a new-found sense of belonging in the world.
‘LSD Wanted to Tell Me Something’ — Albert Hofmann
The story of how LSD was first discovered is quite remarkable. It all began with Albert Hofmann, one of the greatest pharmacologists of the 20th century. Hofmann discovered and synthesized tens of thousands of substances. When he first tested LSD — created from ergot, a fungus that forms on rye — on animals, it produced uninteresting results, causing only mild irritation in the animal.
But in 1943, Hofmann reported having a very curious feeling about the chemical, so he resynthesized it. A few hours later, Hofmann said he had an usual experience and assumed he must have somehow been exposed to the substance. But he wasn’t sure how because he knew if he was exposed, it was to a very minuscule amount.
To find out if his symptoms were caused by this particular substance, Hofmann synthesized another batch and deliberately took 250 mcg, which today we understand is a massive dose of psychedelics. It was then that he found himself having the world’s first psychedelic trip.
Hofmann proceeded to ride his bicycle home. He was feeling very unusual and at one point even thought he was dying, so a friend called a doctor, who said Hofmann’s blood pressure was a little high and his eyes dilated, but other than that was fine. Strangely, Hofmann’s experience, which was initially painful and terrifying, turned into a wonderful one.
“LSD wanted to tell me something. It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for miracles of creation,” said Hofmann. Incredibly, out of the tens of thousands of compounds Hofmann synthesized, there was only one that failed animal testing that he resynthesized, and that was LSD. Hofmann lived to be 102 years old, passing away in 2008 just 10 days after the 55th anniversary of his first acid trip.8
Using Psychedelics to Alleviate Fear of Death in Cancer Patients
Another pioneer in the field of psychedelics is Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist from Czechoslovakia who treated mentally disturbed patients with mystical experiences to improve mental health. He was also one of the firsts to use psychedelic medicine for the dying. The New York Times reports:9
“Grof kept careful notes of his many psychedelic sessions, and in his various papers and books derived from those sessions, he described cancer patients clenched with fear who, under the influence of LSD or DPT, experienced relief from the terror of dying — and not just during their psychedelic sessions but for weeks and months afterward.
Grof continued his investigations into psychedelics for the dying until the culture caught up with him — the recreational use of drugs and the reaction against them leading to harsh antidrug laws.”
Grof conducted more experiments than anyone else, conducting trials with more than 1,000 subjects. He also helped create a new understanding of the human psyche by synthesizing reports from thousands of people from around the world. Grof created a new map of the human mind pointing to its many layers and the fact that psychedelics are unique in their ability to unveil the depths of the human psyche.
Research into the health effects of psychedelics began in the 1950s, but came to an abrupt stop in the 1970s, mainly due to the media’s focus on the substances’ damaging, rather than the positive, effects. However, as noted in the film, the demonization also had a political and cultural dimension to it.
People who took psychedelics had a major shift in their values. In some ways, the shifts ran counter to society’s obsession with materialism and capitalism, calling those values into question, which the government perceived as a threat. Overnight, all legitimate research was shut down, and only recently have labs received approval to start it back up again. As Fadiman puts it:
“It’s turning around because the generation that passed all these repressive laws (banning psychedelic research) that sent people to jail for working on their own minds, are passing away or out of power. And the people coming into power are part of the 23 million people who experienced psychedelics. They are no longer preventing medicine and science and psychology from exploring these materials because they personally are no longer frightened.”
Study: Low-Dosing Psychedelics Enhance Problem-Solving
Before the research was halted in the 1970s, Harman pursued his belief that psychedelics could be used to focus the part of the mind that’s interested in hard-nose scientific problem-solving, not mysticism or psychotherapy, just science. Harman conducted a study of scientists, who in order to receive approval to participate in the study, had to have a problem they cared about deeply but could not solve, despite working on it for several months.
The participants were given a lower dose than those who had mystical experiences. The results from the first group showed that it had worked — most of the participants felt that they had made a huge step forward, developed a new way of looking at the problem or had a solution. Some even went on to have their products developed.
The study seemed to yield successful results, but during the seventh or eighth trial, Harman and his team received a letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration saying the research had been canceled. The scientists were shocked. The government had shut down all research in the U.S., which at that time included about 60 projects, according to the film.
Studies Support Controlled, Clinical Use of Psilocybin
In addition to LSD, psilocybin or magic mushrooms have also been found to alleviate anxiety, depression and fear of death in cancer patients. Unfortunately, psilocybin, like marijuana and LSD, is classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act.10
The mushrooms are typically ingested in their fresh or dried form, or can be made into tea. Large doses have been known to induce panic and/or psychosis. On the other hand, research shows it can also have the opposite effect — providing long-lasting relief from anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, being a Schedule 1 drug, obtaining scientific support for its medicinal use is extremely difficult and costly.
In 2014, London-based psychiatrist James Rucker penned a commentary in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), arguing for the reclassification of LSD and magic mushrooms — which he notes are far less addictive and harmful than heroin and cocaine — in order to make it easier to conduct much needed medical research on them. According to Rucker:
"Hundreds of papers, involving tens of thousands of patients, presented evidence for their use as psychotherapeutic catalysts of mentally beneficial change in many psychiatric disorders, problems of personality development, recidivistic behavior, and existential anxiety."
Clinical Trials Demonstrate Remarkable Benefits of Magic Mushrooms
In a Time magazine article, Dinah Bazer recounts her personal experience with psilocybin. A cancer survivor struggling with severe anxiety (driven by her fear of a recurrence), Bazer agreed to participate in a magic mushroom trial conducted at the NYU Langone Medical Center. While fear gripped her when the drug first brought her "tumbling through space," the experience ended up being a profoundly healing one:
"I started to feel love. I felt like I was being bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful … The feeling of immense love lingered for weeks, and four years later I still feel it at times. My fear and anxiety were completely removed, and they haven't come back …
The experience changed how I wanted to live my life. I used to get up, grab a quick snack and eat it in the car. But I no longer want to be in a hurry. Now I get up an hour early, make a real breakfast and read my paper … I used to imagine what it would be like if the cancer recurred, but I don't think about it the same way anymore. When I don't feel well and thoughts of a recurrence creep into my mind, I lack fear and simply think, 'Let's just see what happens.'"
As noted in the film, an appropriate setting is key for using mushrooms to treat anxiety and depression in cancer patients. During studies at Johns Hopkins University, volunteers remained in the presence of two guides throughout the psilocybin session. They were also provided aftercare.
Participants came out of the study reporting a new feeling of centeredness that allowed them to be more accepting of the fact that they might be dying. Several participants went on to tell their loved ones that everything was going to be OK — an immensely comforting statement for caretakers of terminally ill cancer patients.
Treating Anxiety and Depression Naturally
While research supports the notion that psychedelics offer many healing capabilities, the substances are not for everyone. People with severe mental illness or those who are frightened or distrustful do not make good candidates. Nevertheless, some 23 million Americans report that they use or have used psychedelics. Because psychedelics are illegal in the U.S., the substances are inaccessible for those suffering from anxiety or depression. Fortunately, there are many other nontoxic remedies that are effective for treating these ailments.
In addition to the creation of new neurons, including those that release the calming neurotransmitter GABA, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress. Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the "runner's high." It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving.
Other Antidepressive Lifestyle Strategies
Your gut also plays an important role in your mental state. Your gut and brain work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health and vice versa. It's also the reason why your diet is so closely linked to your mental health.
Prior research has shown that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a marked effect on GABA levels in certain brain regions and lowered the stress-induced hormone corticosterone, resulting in reduced anxiety- and depression-related behavior. The probiotic known as Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001 has also been shown to normalize anxiety-like behavior in mice with infectious colitis.
So, optimizing your gut flora with beneficial bacteria is a highly useful strategy. This is done by eliminating sugars and processed foods and eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables, avoiding processed vegetable oils, and using healthy fats. Additionally, eating plenty of fermented vegetables or taking a high-potency probiotic would be useful to re-establish healthy gut flora.
Your diet should also include a high-quality source of animal-based omega-3 fats, like anchovies, sardines, wild-caught Alaskan salmon or krill oil. The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA play an important role in your emotional well-being, and research has shown a dramatic 20 percent reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3s.
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