Great introduction into the field of psychedelics covering their history, the underlying neuroscience as well as Michael Pollan’s own experience with psychedelics while writing this book.
I absolutely loved the author’s style of writing, so it really was a pleasure reading this book.
Reading Recommendation: 9/10
Mushrooms, called Flesh of the Gods by the Aztecs for a reason.
Diverse applications: Medicine (treat addictions, depressions, disorders, anxiety, …), research (understand the brain & consciousness better) and self-improvement (improve relationships, increase gratitude, overcome obstacles, …).
The recent research is impressive. Roland Griffith’s paper “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance” (2006) as a milestone for further research.
- “Individuals transcend their primary identifications with their bodies and experience ego-free states.” They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance”
- 30 Volunteers, never tried Psilocybin before. 2/3 ranked the experience Top 5 of “most spiritually significant experiences” along with the birth of their first child, their marriages, … 14 months later, ranking only slightly slipped. Volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change”, changes confirmed by family members and friends.
- Crunched survey data of 52 volunteers confirms results. Long-lasting effects in well-being and a long-term increase in the personality trait Openness to New Experiences (about one standard deviation).
- Roland Griffiths: “As a scientific phenomenon, if you can create a condition in which 70 percent of people will say they have had one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives… well, as a scientist that’s just incredible.”
Several use cases for therapeutic application:
- Help people quit smoking. A pilot study in smoking cessation achieved an 80% success rate, which is unprecedented (especially considering that smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break, some say ever harder than heroin). 6 months after psychedelic therapy, 80% of the volunteers were confirmed as abstinent, a figure that only had fallen to 67% at the one-year-mark.
- Support with further addictions (e.g. alcoholism).
- Lower the fear of people who are dying. In both trails with terminal cancer patients from John Hopkins and NYU “80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression” – “Few if any psychiatric interventions of any kind have demonstrated such dramatic and sustained results.” (3+ times the initial treatment effect of SSRI antidepressants).
- Treat Depressions. Currently, larger trials are conducted in both the U.S. and Europe after initial promising results. Conflict between biologically based treatments and psychodynamic treatments (i.e. is mental illness a chemical disorder or a loss of meaning in life?). Psychedelic therapy is the wedding of these two approaches.
Rosalind Watts (Clinical Psychologist at John Hopkins): “I believe this could revolutionize mental health care.” Her conviction is shared by every psychedelic researches that was interviewed by Michael Pollan.
Curiosity as an intellectual driver. Some of the most skeptical, critical and rigorous people (scientists) fall into amazement with psychedelics. It’s like being shown a door in your own mind to explore the unconsciousness. How couldn’t one be curious?
How adults perceive the world. Useful heuristics shape our sense of reality. All experiences are categorized and put into pre-defined buckets. Few surprises, energy efficient from an evolutionary perspective. As opposed to the mind of children. Psychedelics erase existing connections (“shaking the snow globe”), decreasing the activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) that works as mediator connecting different parts of the brain and is associated with our sense of self (leading to what the scientist call “ego dissolution”).
Our consciousness is just one of many forms. There lie types of consciousness entirely different to what we know. This “forbids a premature closing of our accounts of reality.” (James William)
The nature of consciousness. The Dalai Lama said, the idea that brains create consciousness – an idea accepted without questions by most scientist – “is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact.”
The potential for deeper understanding. Stanislav Graf, psychiatrist and LSD therapy pioneer, once predicted that psychedelics “would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology or the telescope for astronomy. These tools make it possible to study processes that wouldn’t be visible under normal circumstances.”
Not a typical drug: Psychedelics are non-addictive (taken in a short period of time multiple times, their effect decreases). There are no reported cases of death through overdose. Animals, given the choice, will not self-administer the drug more than once. Psychedelics don’t fit in the classical profile of drugs.
Guidelines as part of the preparation. Sitters of psychedelic sessions work from a set of “flight instructions” prepared by Bill Richards. TLO – Trust, Let Go, Be Open. Volunteers are quizzed – if you see a door, what do you do? Open it and enter, is of course the correct answer. Face the fear. If you feel like dying, exploding – go ahead. “Think of yourself as an astronaut being blasted into outer space.”
Mystical experiences. William James: Mystical experiences are characterized by a) their ineffability – it defies expression b) they seem to be states of knowledge i.e. bring revelations full of significance and carry a sense of authority
The first wave of psychedelics (1950s and ‘60s)
- LSD discovery in 1943 by Albert Hoffman (by accident). Sandoz, the pharmaceutical company he worked at, offered free supply of LSD to any researcher as part of their crowd-sourced research strategy until 1966 when they withdrew LSD from circulation due to the nation-wide controversy.
- Scientific challenges arise – a) irrational exuberance of researchers that might influence the results and b) fitting psychedelic research into the existing structures of science (How to do a controlled study? How do you effectively blind patients and clinicians? How to control for the powerful expectancy effect? How to treat the fact that the majority of the treatment effect is based on the experience the patients had and not the drug per se?)
- Increasing popularity among the (intellectual) elite. From understanding insanity to treating alcohol addiction in the context of research. Wider application and increasing popularity in therapeutic sessions, mainly in LA across many celebrities (many claimed to have transformative experiences). Stanford and other universities start teaching classes about psychedelics. Personal use in research and in business, especially in Silicon Valley (Pollan mentions one Bay Area company that even today uses psychedelics in their management training and apparently some even institutionalised a “microdosing Friday”.
- Scientific results look more than promising. In half a dozen papers published in the 60s, researchers report that 78% of the clients stated, the experiences increased their ability to love, 71% recognised an increase in self-esteem and 83% said that they glimpsed a higher or ultimate reality.
James Fadiman et al. conduct an experiment to increase creativity and overcome frustrating intellectual problems among artist, engineers, scientists and architects and find promising results.
- The importance of Set and Setting. “Psychedelics are non-specific amplifiers.” Researchers pair with brilliant amateurs that provide funding, amongst them Aldous Huxley. The internal mindset and the external setting significantly impact the journey.
- Psychedelics are being distributed among the youth (which marks the beginning of its decline). Harvard professor Timothy Leary transforms from being a professor to becoming a “guru” and promotes the population-wide usage of psychedelics. Psychedelics turn out to be “disruptive” in reference to the existing social order.
Timothy Leary (1963): “ Make no mistake: the effect of [psychedelics] will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potentialities, of existence. The game is about to be changed. Man is about to make use of that fabulous electrical network he carries around in his skull.”
- The (politically caused) decline: “In 1971, Nixon declared the Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America.” Psychedelics were nourishing the counterculture and the counterculture was sapping the willingness of America’s young to fight. The Nixon administration sought to blunt the counterculture by attacking its neurochemical infrastructure.“
- Further controversies. Additionally, LSD trials by the CIA lead to a national scandal. Pressure increases, reports of bad trips and potential side effects are published, funding is prohibited or at least severely slowed down. Research freezes.
- A concluding quote. “The fact is whether by their very nature or the way the first generation of researches happened to construct the experience, psychedelics introduced something deeply subversive to the West that the various establishments had little choice but to repulse. LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconsciousness) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilizations, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.”
Psilocybin is a tryptamine. It resembles the most famous tryptamine Serotonin and has a strong affinity with the serotonin receptor 5-HT(2A). Curiously, psychedelics are even “stickier” than Serotonin itself, which led some scientist to assume that our body most produce some endogenous psychedelic that is released under certain circumstances.
Psychedelics as a tool to understand the contents of consciousness. Due to their effects (dissolution of ego, expansion of consciousness, sense of unity) a number of scientists believe that psychedelics can be the key to understanding the nature of our consciousness.
Psychedelics allow access to the unconscious. Robert Carhart-Harris (Imperial College London): “Freud said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. Psychedelics could turn out to be the super highway.”
Psychedelics decrease the brain activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN).
- The DMN links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotions. The DMN stands in a kind of seesaw relationship with the attention networks that wake up whenever the outside world demands our attention. It is most active when we engage in “metacognitive” brain functions such as self-reflection, mental time travel, moral reasoning and “theory of mind” – the ability to attribute mental states to others.
- The DMN isn’t operational until late in a child’s development.
- As a whole, it operates as a top-down “brain orchestrator conductor”. It’s activity is associated with our sense of self (or the ego) which is why some scientists call it the “me network”. When you are given a list of adjectives and asked to refer these to yourself, the activity in the DMN lights up.
- In studies with long-time meditators, one can recognise a significant decrease in the DMN activity, especially when meditating.
- “Self-reflection can lead to great intellectual and artistic achievement but also to destructive forms of self-regard and many types of unhappiness.” In an often cited paper called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” researchers identified a strong correlation between unhappiness and time spent in mind wandering, a principal activity of the DMN.
- The decrease of activity in the DMN (and its subsequent effects) can be achieved in a number of ways, meditations and psychedelics being two of them. Further possibilities include fasting, sensory deprivation, extreme sports, near-death-experience, overwhelming feelings of awe and so on.
The DMN not only works as a top-down control system, but additionally regulates what is let into consciousness. Most neuroscientists work under the paradigm of the brain as a prediction-making machine. Our brain takes as little as possible sensory data to make an educated guess (categorized buckets of experience relying on previous experiences.
The philosophical implications are deep and difficult to grasp. Our perception of reality is much less reflecting reality than it is a product of our imagination based on prior experiences and our models of memory. How is normal consciousness then much different from other, seemingly less faithful productions of our imagination such as dreams?
Theory: The brain is an entropy-reducing machine.
- The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research with Psychedelic Drugs” (2014). Robin Carhart-harris et al.
- Suppressing entropy (i.e. uncertainty) serves to increase “realism, foresight, careful reflection and an ability to recognize and overcome wishful and paranoid fantasies” but at the same time “constraints cognition” and exert “a limiting or narrowing influence on consciousness.”
- Entropy spectrum to explain psychological “disorders” such as depression, addiction, obsession and eating disorders at the low-end entropy spectrum.
Carhart-Harris suggests that in the case of depression, the ego “turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades our reality.” He cites research that indicates that this state of mind (sometimes called depressive realism or heavy self-consciousness) may be the result of a hyperactive DMN “which can trap us in repetitive and destructive loops”.
- For people that suffer from excessively rigid patterns of thought stand to benefit from “the ability of psychedelics to disrupt stereotypical patterns of thought and behaviour by disintegrating the patterns of [neural] activity upon which they rest
- Psychedelics alter consciousness by disorganizing brain activity and increasing the level of entropy to allow for a more open mode of cognition.
We all have the experience of an entropic brain – as a young child.
- Alison Gopnik (Development psychologist at Berkeley) draws the distinction between a spotlight consciousness (adult) and a lantern consciousness (young child).
- Comparison to AI research: Low temperature searches (local optimum – nearest or most probable solution) vs. high temperature searches (global optimum). Adult minds most often conduct low temperature searches due to energy efficiency.
- “[Children’s] thinking is less constrained by experience so they will try even the most unlikely possibilities.” They “are better learners than adults in many cases where the solution is nonobvious.”