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The Psychedelic Revival

Do Magic Mushroom’s Make You Mystical?”, a brief in the October Discover, gives me an excuse to introduce readers of this blog to one of my quirkier beats: psychedelic drugs. As Discover reports, a double-blind, federally funded (!) study at Johns Hopkins found that psilocybin—the primary active ingredient of magic mushrooms--triggered profound spiritual experiences in two thirds of a group of 36 subjects. One third of these subjects said the experience was the most meaningful of their lives, two thirds said it was among their top five experiences.

The larger story here is that psychedelics are quietly making a comeback, not as illicit street drugs but as legal objects of scientific and medical research and even as religious sacraments. Did you know that last February the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a religious sect based in New Mexico, most of whose members are middle-class white people, can consume a hallucinogenic tea called ayahuasca? Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, which induces effects similar to LSD and mescaline and like them is a Schedule 1 drug, banned for all purposes. Brewed from two plants found in the Amazon, ayahuasca has been ingested by Indians in South America for centuries, and it now serves as a legal sacrament for several churches in Brazil.

Most journalists wisely shun the resurgence of research on psychedelics, but I find it too fascinating to resist. I’ve covered the topic in my book Rational Mysticism and in this magazine. My 2003 article “Peyote on the Brain” profiled a leader of the psychedelic renaissance, John Halpern, a young Harvard psychiatrist who carried out a five-year study of the effects of peyote consumption by members of the Native American Church (and is now studying whether MDMA, a.k.a. Ecstasy, can alleviate anxiety and depression in terminally ill patients). Halpern found no ill effects from peyote and possible benefits, such as lower rates of alcoholism, as he reported in a peer-reviewed paper. As part of my research for the article, I joined Halpern in a peyote ceremony on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, an experience that challenged—to put it mildly—my journalistic objectivity. For the Navajo who took part in the ceremony, the ceremony seemed to provide a cathartic, spiritually profound experience.

An excerpt from the article:

While recognizing that psychedelics are toxic substances that should not be treated lightly, Halpern thinks some of the drug compounds could have beneficial uses. "There are medicines here," he says, that could prove to be "fundamentally valuable." He hopes the mind-revealing power of psychedelics can be harnessed to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by two deadly diseases notoriously resistant to treatment: alcoholism and addiction. More than 12 million Americans abuse alcohol, and another 1 million abuse cocaine or heroin.

Halpern's conviction that psychedelics might help alcoholics and addicts is based both on research by others and on his personal observations of members of the Native American Church. Although Indians in central and northern Mexico, peyote's natural habitat, have ingested it for spiritual purposes for thousands of years, only in the last century did this practice spread to tribes throughout North America in the form of rituals of the Native American Church.

All the subjects of Halpern's research are Navajo, who account for roughly 10 percent of the church's membership and hold key leadership positions. Even though tribal leaders have banned alcohol from their reservation, alcoholism is still rampant. For the Navajo and other tribes, rates of alcoholism are estimated to be more than twice the national average. Those in the Native American Church say their medicine helps keep them sober and healthy in body and mind, and Halpern suspects they are right.

The most amazing part of this psychedelic revival is that it is occuring under the most conservative administration in recent history.



Administration behind use of hallucinogens! What better way to distract us from the reality they are creating.

Or maybe their reality is a result of their use.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Psychedelic Science Challenge

I totally divide John's interest in the subject and I would say also the nature of this interest (as much as I can judge). There is indeed a special fascination in that particular combination of serious scientific interest, indeed very complicated research subject “unlimited from above” (as everything related to psyche), but also all those “social” aspects, freedom, spirit of 60s, today's “political correctness” of administration whose president acknowledges that “at his time” he was not always that strict... However, what is disappointing in that otherwise interesting research is that, here again, one can clearly see the limitations of that definitely “ending” science paradigm, at least judging from the cited results. They are expressed in terms of “statistical” effects of psychedelic substances of interest. But that is not the true challenge of psychedelic science thus initiated. Indeed, as brain is essentially a chemical system, it is not so surprising that many substances would have one or another “general” effect upon it, starting already from well-known “ordinary” cases of coffee, tea, alcohol, etc. What would be especially and specifically interesting as the purpose of psychedelic science is to trace the details of much more complicated, strictly individual effects of those more exotic substances, such as more complicated emotions, elaborated enough “feelings/sensations”, thinking power (confirmed, why not, by the obtained unexpected scientific results!), and finally “hallucinations” but more interesting, “creative” ones (indeed all “natural” imagination products can also be considered as hallucinations, where the “norm” is especially difficult to define). Maybe much of it has been seen in the mentioned research, but then it is those qualitative, individual results that should be emphasized as most interesting ones. It is the “hallucination” quality that really matters, rather than its average statistics of appearance. Practical and fundamental connections of thus understood psychedelic science can include much deeper understanding of brain operation dynamics, fine “psychological” cure (not just “tranquiliser” kind), understanding of the origin of emotions, intelligence and consciousness, etc. In summary, here too one definitely needs well-specified “individual complexity”, rather than “averaged simplicity”.

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