Psychedelics have been a popular street drug since LSD gained prominence in the 1960s. Prior to modernity, humanity around the globe utilized a variety of psychotropics to enhance their spiritual and mental well-being. There is a stark juxtaposition of perspectives on psychedelics: some describe the substances as dangerous drugs, while others praise the compounds as a spiritual sacrament. Clinical trials have shown that psychedelics expand the mind by inhibiting portions of the brain typically responsible for bundling our mental processes into a coherent and self-aware ego. This cognitive expansion of the mind through the loss of ego has been clinically documented and has been suggested as a viable treatment for a myriad of mental disorders. However, the political climate of American culture has historically stifled the revival of these powerful and beneficial substances.
The phrase psychedelics was coined by Humphry Osmond in 1957. Osmond coined the phrase in an attempt to describe the capacity of these substances to reveal useful or beneficial properties of the mind through an altered state of consciousness. As a result of Osmond’s contribution, that nomenclature describing such substances has been popular for more than five decades among the public. However, the name has been generally rejected by the scientific community because it connotes that these substances have potentially useful properties. The idea that psychedelics can have beneficial effects has not been embraced by most modern medical professionals; and in fact, relevant federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Mental Health have conducted absolutely no research into the potentially useful properties of psychedelics. Yet these substances have persisted in our society, and privately funded clinical trials support the notion that psychedelics have beneficial uses. Today, many researchers (although confined to the private sector) now consider psychedelics worthy of studying. Indeed, scientists (primarily in the medical field) have been initiating and successfully completing a variety of clinical studies on psychedelics over the past fifteen years. As a whole, the results have been remarkably positive.
The relative lack of research into psychedelics never resulted from a lack of interest from the scientific community, but rather occurred as a consequence of political ideologies that propagated the 1960s and 1970s. The use of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and marijuana were popular within the hippie counterculture. The hippies (and the free-love movement more broadly) were a substantial political force that regularly demonstrated against the Vietnam War, much to the consternation of federal and state authorities and legislatures. Antiwar attitudes and the overt rejection of conventional social norms by the hippie counterculture were labeled by the mainstream media as the result of drug use. Consequently, mainstream Americans generally believed these substances were “perverting” the minds of the youth. Furthermore, Harvard University professor Timothy Leary advised his students to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Such messages were not well received by mainstream culture, and mass media exacerbated the public hysteria with exaggerated reports of drug-induced psychosis, genetic damage, and dangerous delusional states. Folks generally saw the phenomena of students abandoning normative conventions for the sake of discovering their true selves as worthless and dangerous erosions of the social fabric. Strict laws were passed in that political climate, and American culture has since been unable to reject these misconceptions. However, psychedelics have not historically been regarded with such disdain and apprehension.
Psychedelics are among the oldest pharmacological compounds created by humanity. In ancient India a psychedelic drink called Soma is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda, and various Vedic hymns are written in praise to Soma. In ancient Greece, all kings would seek the advice of the Delphi Oracle prior to making important decisions. The oracle would channel the god Apollo by meditating in a room filled with hallucinogenic incense and render advice; this political paradigm resulted in an age of peace and artistic advancement across the Greek archipelagos that lasted for hundreds of years. Furthermore, among the Aztecs, psilocybin mushrooms known as Teonanacatl (god’s flesh) were utilized by shamans during healing and divination rituals. Similarly, the small Peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) has been used throughout the American Southwest and Northern Mexico as a sacred sacrament for millennia; and Ayahuasca has been historically used by natives throughout the Amazon valley and South America for similar purposes.
The way psychedelics are defined, whether that be as medicine or poison, depends heavily on the socio-political status of the time and culture. Throughout human history, psychedelics have been regarded as spiritually nourishing medicines with the capacity to heal and guide. In contrast, the contemporary United States has an established policy of violently inhibiting the use of psychedelics. \
Psychedelics and the Brain
A psychedelic experience is often associated with hallucinations, vivid images, intense sounds, and greater self-awareness. These are the hallmark effects of substances such as Ayahuasca, DMT, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and marijuana. These substances can take the user on a wild ride through their own consciousness. Not all psychedelic trips are the same, and each psychoactive substance offers a unique experience.
Regardless of the psychedelic, the experience is physiologically extremely powerful. Brain imaging studies have shown that powerful psychoactive, such as DMT or Mescaline, have profound effects on the neural activity of the brain. The functions of the brain become less constrained and exponentially more connected while in a psychedelic state of altered consciousness. The psychedelic experience has been clinically shown to enhance emotional awareness, provide greater introspection, and trigger higher states of consciousness. These psychological benefits have led many researchers to suggest that psychedelics have the potential to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and many other cognitive maladies. By opening the mind, the theory suggests, people under the influence of psychedelics can confront their painful past experiences without shame or fear—it is not that the user is emotionally numb (quite the opposite in fact); but rather, the user gains a more objective perspective on themselves.
Although there are tremendous benefits to psychedelics, these substances are not without risk or side effects. Overdose can dangerously raise body temperature and cause severe digestive issues. Additionally, people who are unprepared to encounter their own psyche may find the experience downright terrifying (ie the archetypal “bad trip”). However, current research into ayahuasca, DMT, MDMA, and psilocybin mushrooms suggests that these substances have exciting and encouraging potential to change the way we treat mental illness. More research is needed, but what we do know is very promising!