By Daniel Miller, The Washington Post, April 1, 2016
In 1970, Congress dropped psychedelics into the war on drugs. After a decade of Timothy Leary, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and news reports of gruesome murders, the federal government declared that the drugs had no medical use — and high potential for abuse. The chairman of New Jersey’s Narcotic Drug Study Commission called LSD “the greatest threat facing the country today . . . more dangerous than the Vietnam War.”
But over the past decade, some scientists have begun to challenge that conclusion. Far from being harmful, they found, hallucinogens can help sick people: They helped alcoholics drink less; terminal patients eased more gently into death. And it’s not just the infirm who are helped by the drugs. Psychedelics can make the healthy healthier, too.
On this subject, only a handful of peer-reviewed studies have been conducted; sample sizes are tiny. There’s still a great deal researchers don’t know. But early results suggest that, when used by people without a family history or risk of psychological problems, psychedelics can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs. They can help us solve problems more creatively and make us more open-minded and generous. Some experiments even suggest that a single dose can change our personalities forever.
Is it possible that a drug labeled as one of the most destructive and dangerous could make everyone’s lives better?
* * *
Americans have had a complicated history with psychedelics like LSD, magic mushrooms and peyote. In the 1950s, researchers began to investigate whether psychedelics could treat mental-health disorders and addiction. Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government funded 116 studies on the subject, affecting thousands of people.
At the same time, large numbers of Americans started using these drugs recreationally.
As many as 2 million had dropped acid by 1970. Stories about “bad trips” and psychotic breaks emerged in the press. In one widely publicized incident, a 5-year-old accidentally took her uncle’s drug; people got scared. Meanwhile, soldiers were returning from Vietnam addicted to heroin; the country felt like it was locked in battle with illegal drug use. By 1968, President Richard Nixon had declared drugs “public enemy number one.” Congress banned all psychedelic use in 1970, which made research nearly impossible.
Then, in the early 2000s, a handful of scientists began looking into psychedelics as a way to relieve anxiety and addiction. (They were drawn to the drugs after reviewing the work of researchers from the 1950s and ’60s.) These experiments were successful. In one study, cancer patients were given psilocybin, a component of psychedelic mushrooms. Each patient was given one dose and then allowed to trip in a hospital room designed to look like a living room. Two medical professionals stayed close by.
Afterward, almost all of the participants experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression. Scientists checked in with the patients six months later; all reported that they still felt calmer and happier. Volunteer Gail Thomas told me that the treatment helped her overcome a deep sense of loneliness. “The main message from the trip was that we’re all connected,” she said. “We’re not alone.”
“The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding,” NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross told the New Yorker. “We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
Other researchers have tested the drug as a treatment for depression, addiction and other mental problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Remarkably, in each small trial, scientists saw incredible results.
In a 2014 smoking-cessation study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, 15 participants were given three doses of psilocybin under careful supervision by doctors. The participants were all heavy nicotine users, consuming about a pack a day for an average of 31 years. Six months later, 80 percent were cigarette-free — most smoking-cessation efforts are about 35 percent effective. In a 2015 alcoholism study, also peer-reviewed and published in Psychopharmacology, many of the 10 participants saw a significant decrease in drinking for at least nine months after one or two psilocybin experiences. In both studies, the psilocybin doses were coupled with therapy.
Here’s why scientists think it works: When someone takes a psychedelic, there is a decrease in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain’s “default mode network,” a group of brain structures found in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex. The default mode network is primarily responsible for our ego or sense of self; it “lights up” when we daydream or self-reflect.
When we trip, our default mode network slows down. With the ego out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object dissolve. These processes may be related to something called the “primary mystical experience,” a phenomena highly correlated with therapeutic outcomes. As Matthew Johnson, a principal investigator in Johns Hopkins’s psilocybin studies, explains, these experiences include a “transcendence of time and space,” a sense of unity and sacredness and a deeply felt positive mood.
Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist with Imperial College London, notes that the default mode network is responsible for a lot of our rigid, habitual thinking and obsessions. Psychedelics help relax the part of the brain that leads us to obsess, which makes us calmer. And they can help “loosen if not break” the entrenched physical circuits responsible for addictive behavior.
There’s also an increase in activity between different parts of the brain that don’t normally communicate — what scientists call “cross-talk.” That may be why we hallucinate while on psychedelics; the brain’s visual-processing centers are interacting in strange ways with the parts of the brain that control our beliefs and emotions.
* * *
Of course, it’s not just the mentally ill who need to feel less isolated and obsessive, more fulfilled and creative. Research has shown that healthy people also benefit from the brain shift that psychedelics provide. Taking the drug even one time can fundamentally reshape our lives, making us happier and kinder, more productive at work and more open-minded. These findings are one of the reasons I became a psychedelics advocate.
In one study (admittedly, one that didn’t follow today’s rigorous research parameters) conducted at Harvard in 1962, 10 divinity school students were given psilocybin just before a Good Friday service. Eight reported a mystical experience. In the late 1980s, researcher and psychedelics advocate Rick Doblin interviewed seven of the students who’d taken the drug. All said that experience had shaped their lives and work in profound ways. But Doblin also found that several subjects experienced acute anxiety during their experiences. One participant had to be dosed with a powerful antipsychotic after he became convinced that he’d been chosen to announce the arrival of the Messiah and ran from the chapel.
In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers tested whether psychedelics induce a mystical experience in healthy people. Thirty-six volunteers were given either a hallucinogen or a placebo at one session. In the second session, the pills were reversed. Six months later, the study participants said they were “more sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, to have increased positive relationships, an increased need to serve others,” according to a lead researcher. The doctors interviewed participants’ family members, friends and colleagues as well; they all confirmed that the study participants had become nicer and more pleasant.
The positive changes seen in this study persisted for at least 14 months. A third of the participants in the Hopkins study rated their psilocybin session as the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, even more important than the birth of a child or the death of a parent.
The 2006 study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. In that issue, several prominent drug researchers were invited to comment; all praised the finding and called for additional research. Columbia University professor Herbert Kleber wrote that he saw “major therapeutic possibilities.”
In a 2011 study, 18 healthy volunteers were given four doses of psilocybin. The vast majority of participants reported prolonged positive changes in attitude and mood, feelings that lasted for at least 14 months. In follow-up research, scientists determined that many of the volunteers from both studies had undergone a change in personality, something that is supposed to remain relatively fixed after 30. Participants had become more open-minded, tolerant and interested in fantasy and imagination.