Our Sacred-Scientific, Psychedelic Future
“In one of my early books I suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology was comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy. My later experience with psychedelics only confirmed this initial impression.” —Dr. Stanislav Grof
In what would become a prelude to the infamous “Summer of Love,” the Human Be-In event in January 1967 has largely been forgotten by mainstream history books. In more esoteric circles, it is known for introducing the term “psychedelics” to regular Americans. The etymology of psychedelic derives from the ancient Greek meaning “mind manifesting” or “soul visible.”
The Human Be-In event was also the setting for Timothy Leary’s famous challenge to the attendees: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary’s saying would become a prominent impetus for politicians clamping down on the incredibly promising psychedelic research in neuroscience that had been taking shape over the preceding decades. Cultural pearl-clutching due to fears surrounding the chemical compound’s influence on the brain had reached a fever pitch, tipping political fervor to demonization—making psychedelics illegal. Unbeknownst to most of the general public, the same compounds were being used in thousands of clinical brain science studies, and to quite incredible results: “More than 40,000 patients were administered LSD alongside therapy between 1950 and 1965, and more than a thousand scientific papers were published.”
[Read “How Deconstructing Anxiety Makes Transcendence Possible“]
‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.’
Try to imagine what 1967 was like. The Vietnam war was in full swing, along with its opposition. A stone’s throw from where the Human Be-In event took place, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco became the epicenter of the late-1960s counterculture—a beacon for hippies. These crazed and ideological youth upset the regular social order of 1950s Americana with their enthusiasm for controversial topics like ecological awareness and communal living to personal empowerment and pursuit of higher consciousness—sometimes aided by the use of psychedelic drugs. Cultural and political decentralization with a healthy dose of radical liberal aims.
Leary would explain, in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks, what he was really trying to get at with his often misconstrued statement:
“‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you—externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. ‘Drop out’ suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development are often misinterpreted to mean ‘get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.’”
Regardless of Leary’s intentions, the death knell of the First Psychedelic Renaissance was struck. An entire generation of critical research—bordering on two—was lost due to apprehensions about the “bad trip” boogeymen and other unscientific fear-mongering.
[Read “Hallucinations Shouldn’t Be Stigmatized, Can Lead to Growth“]
The Sacred, Psychedelic Past
The Tassili n’Ajjer National Park in south-east Algeria is home to ancient rock art carvings (7,000 – 9,000 years old) that point to a lengthy, deep relationship between humans and psychedelic mushrooms. These reflect what was most likely a ritualistic ceremony to ingest a sacrament for mind-altering experiences. The ancient artists presumably thought these mushrooms important enough to carve depictions into rock for future generations. Rock art is the first permanent form of visual communication known to mankind. The art in itself can only be described as (and I hate to be cliché) “trippy.”
In a 1992 paper, Giorgio Samorini says that these rock art carvings are particularly interesting as they depict not just people holding mushrooms but also reflect the mind being influenced by them.
“One of the most important scenes is to be found in the Tin-Tazarift rock art site at Tassili. . . . Each dancer holds a mushroom-like object in the right hand and, even more surprising, two parallel lines come out of this object to reach the central part of the head of the dancer. . . . It would seem that these lines—in themselves an ideogram which represents something non-material in ancient art—represent the effect that the mushroom has on the human mind.”
Ritual dancing is not the only way the rock art carvings portray mushrooms. An affinity with animals, especially of the four-legged bovine kind, is clear in other examples. This points to a symbiotic relationship between ancient humans constantly following large herds and the mushrooms that grow on the dung of these animals.
“This specific ecological phenomenon cannot but have been taken into account with regard to the sacramental use of psychotropic mushrooms, leading to the creation of mystico-religious relations between the mushroom and the animal which produces its natural habitat. . . . Thus we have a further argument in favor of the version of events that would have it that there have been mythical associations, with religious interpretations, on different occasions, between the (sacred) animal and the hallucinogenic mushroom.”
The urge to transcend self-conscious selfhood, as Aldous Huxley put it in The Doors of Perception (1954), is a “principal appetite of the soul.” From betel petals to cannabis, from San Pedro cactus to the poppy: the ancients used the natural ingredients of their environment in a sacred way to expand their own consciousness.
Every human culture since prehistory has had experiences with mind-altering substances, which could be one of the earliest indicators of religious formation. Elisa Guerra-Doce, a Spanish archeologist who studies the use of psychoactive substances in ancient cultures, says, “Psychoactive plants were woven deeply into belief systems and spiritual practices in every corner of the globe. There are certain scholars who believe that the idea of religion itself emerges from the use of psychoactive plants around the world. . . . We find drugs in tombs, in ceremonial places—always connected with ritual activity.”
I want to drive home a point—for ancient cultures, taking psychoactive substances was revered and respected. One of the most sacred and influential experiences of one’s life. It was the ancient way of seeing behind the curtain of reality. It was even more important for one to journey back to this existence, hopefully more capable of handling regular life with learnings from the “other side.” In addition to personally journeying, the collective was also influenced by integrating one’s experience(s) with others in one’s community who have also gone through this rite of passage.
[Read “Ecstatic Experience: How the West Can Find Itself by Losing Control“]
The Scientific, Psychedelic Present
Fast-forwarding a few thousand years to the 1900s, we meet a who’s who of characters in the psycho-pharmacology world that are beginning to poke around with novel compounds. This would begin the First Psychedelic Renaissance. Anyone dealing with the mind was immediately enthralled by the benefits of these unique chemical structures. Not only was it for people in need, but also for those who didn’t know they needed it. There are enough storylines and character arcs to fill volumes, but here are some historical highlights to cover the broad strokes.
In mid-April 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofman decided to reexamine a shelved compound, LSD-25, that he had first synthesized some five years earlier to lackluster animal effects. While working, he accidentally absorbed some through his fingernails. In his journal he wrote, “At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state. . . I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”
Three days later, Hofman self-experimented to see what type of properties and effects LSD-25 could produce. The first full-blown acid trip known to mankind was taking place. Overcome by the experience, he asked his assistant to ride bicycles home with him. (Making April 19th famously—Bicycle Day.) The next day Hofmann concluded, “This self-experiment showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness.”
In 1953, the British author Aldous Huxley took mescaline under the supervision of psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond (who coined the term psychedelic). Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception the following year about his own experience. It would take another four years for psychedelics to enter the mainstream. Amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson’s photo essay, “The Discovery of Mushrooms That Cause Strange Visions,” was published in LIFE magazine chronicling his experience taking psilocybin mushrooms two years earlier. This occurred during a Mazatec ritual with curandera Maria Sabina in Oaxaca, Mexico. Wasson and his photographer were seemingly the first Westerners to ever be involved in a Mazatec ceremony.
All throughout the 1950s and into the mid-1960s, the Godfather of Psychedelics, Stanislav Grof, pioneered a field of study that would eventually garner international accreditation. According to Dr. Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar, in those 15 years “there were more than a thousand clinical papers (discussing 40,000 patients), several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy.”
Starting in 1960, Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert conducted The Harvard Psilocybin Project to much fame and criticism. The study included the Concord Prison Experiment (in which inmates were given psilocybin in an effort to reduce recidivism) and the “Good Friday” experiment (wherein psilocybin was administered to determine whether the drug could facilitate the experience of profound religious states). In May of 1962, Leary and Alpert were fired from Harvard and the Psilocybin Project was scrapped. After eight years of more criminalization and propaganda, LSD, mescaline, cannabis, and psilocybin were classified as Schedule I drugs in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
With fervent disdain for the counterculture that was popping up—alongside a myriad of other factors like the Cold War—society shunned these interesting and helpful compounds. Thus, was the end of the First Psychedelic Renaissance, beginning an experimental dark age that would remain until the next millennium.
[Read “Depression Isn’t Caused by a Chemical Imbalance“]
The Sacred-Scientific Future
The Second Psychedelic Renaissance, which continues today, began around 2006 with Johns Hopkins publishing a study on the increase in “mystical experiences” from psilocybin users. With this, a leak had finally been sprung in the damn that was holding up the psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research body of water!
Since then, psilocybin has shown promise in treating depression: a single dose can have a long-lasting personality change, including a significant impact five years after treatment. LSD has been shown to help alleviate severe anxiety symptoms (especially regarding the end of life), and increase optimism and openness with “no [corresponding] changes in delusional thinking.”
Both LSD and psilocybin are unique and powerful compounds that decrease Default Mode Network activity in the brain (associated with the dissolution of ego), induce a higher state of consciousness, and don’t really have an adverse effect on mental health (barring borderline psychotics). MDMA has even shown massive promise for PTSD patients.
In 2015, with some extra Bitcoin handy, I donated to a crowdfunding project for the Beckley Foundation which aimed to produce the world’s first LSD brain imaging study. A year later, the findings were published.
The latest in neuroscience points to how our brains filter out the “real world” through evolutionarily-influenced cerebral shortcuts in everyday waking consciousness. Through our years of experience, our brains have become quite capable as prediction-generating organs. When taking psychedelics, adults can re-tune that prediction model by having to integrate a completely novel (mystical experience) data point. This can be beneficial, of course, for the “sick,” as described in the studies above. But, I also believe it could be the single most important thing a healthy adult can do for themselves psychologically (especially when a new perspective is needed).
An encounter with the Sacred through a mystical portal can produce profound experiences: feeling unity with everything and preciousness toward the event (deserving of respect), noetic states (there is something more real and more true then everyday waking consciousness), positive moods, joy, the transcendence of time and space, ineffability, integrated senses of appreciation, and long-term improvements in well-being. Albert Hofmann says, “An understanding of the divine message—in its universal language—would bring an end to the war between the religions of the world.”
Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy will go down in history as a turning point in humanity’s study of the brain. The Godfather of Psychedelics himself said: “This unique property of psychedelics makes it possible to study psychological undercurrents that govern our experiences and behaviors to a depth that cannot be matched by any other method and tool available in modern mainstream psychiatry and psychology. In addition, it offers unique opportunities for healing of emotional and psychosomatic disorders, for positive personality transformation, and consciousness evolution.”
Nicholas is a former freelance journalist turned writer and creator of Eclectic Spacewalk. With essays, interviews, podcasts, and video production, Eclectic Spacewalk is a place to analyze the human condition with pragmatic heuristics—always through a global and local “overview effect” lens.