There is something new emerging, and it’s big
There is a lot of interest about psychedelic substances these days and I have had a very long time to consider their place in the world now, as opposed to in the past. My first experience, and my best, was over forty years ago, when they were illegal and the sources often questionable. Since those adolescent experiments I have not indulged and likely never will. Nevertheless, recent breakthroughs in using these substances as treatments cannot be ignored.
Yes, I was triggered, in a good way, by Michael Pollan’s book
Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind is a very mundane title for an important book I have been waiting years for. A reasonable history of psychedelic usage in Western society and an outline of the current state of research after it was shut down for over forty years. It’s important to understand how much our (limited) knowledge of neuroscience has grown and how it gives us some ability to begin to understand what these remarkable substances are capable of, good and bad.
Pollan skirts the line that many have had to skirt to experience these things and he does it about as responsibly as possible, given that their unregulated use is still illegal under federal law. But he performs a service in that he makes clear that this is a serious undertaking with immense potential as both a treatment, and a danger to mentally unstable or abused individuals.
No recommendations, in fact making psychedelic recommendations to people you don’t know is irresponsible
I am not a therapist, but if I was one I would never suggest that an individual I was not treating directly should experiment with psychedelics. It would not only be irresponsible, it would in most cases be both illegal and violate professional ethics. For therapists and researchers this is a very grey area. There appear to be potentially immense benefits for treating depression and addiction that cannot be ignored.
But these substances also appear to rewire neural pathways in the brain, virtually instantaneously and permanently in many people, a completely different effect than that of other psychotropic drugs used as treatments. That fact that for some a single experience can initiate major changes is not something often seen in medicine and psychiatry. So there is a need to tread carefully here.
Many are romanticizing these powerful substances
They come from nature.
Many ancient societies used them as sacrament.
Westerners need more shamanic experiences.
They open up new worlds. Etc. Etc.
This romanticization of things that are very powerful tools is dangerous. Those ancient users followed elaborate rituals for mental preparation and the physical preparation of the substances themselves, rituals that served to standardize dosage and manage set and setting. Taking them out of their societal context destroys these practices developed over thousands of years.
Today’s modern research has had to adapt these rituals based on scientific experimentation, experimentation that is in its infancy in our societies. The acceptance of the value of mindset and environment (set and setting) is accepted but we know very little about their effect in any kind of detail.
We have other paths that are slower but much safer and may be longer term
Specifically I am referring to mindfulness and mediation practice. Though I had a remarkable experience with my first LSD trip as a youth, it is meditation practice that has served me better since. There is little downside to taking the time to simply observe the mind until it settles and you become more presently aware.
This discipline, applied over years, does not provide the instant gratification of a chemical substance, be it a martini or a mushroom, but over time it changes perspective in many positive ways. It requires personal discipline, which, somewhat ironically, was also emphasized by the shamans referenced above. They took this stuff seriously and required their followers to do the same.
Be careful about making blanket statements, good or bad, about psychedelics
Discussions about these substances are, by necessity, completely speculative because we know so little about how they work and why. Beware those who claim expertise because literally no one in our society is truly an expert. It appears that our knowledge is the very tip of the iceberg. It is interesting to speculate what the hidden mountain looks like, but that is all it is, speculation.
What happens next in the psychedelic world?
As mentioned above, this is just the beginning. We’re catching up after a forty year break in research of these compounds. During that time our technological capabilities exploded, giving us research tools that were unimaginable in the sixties and seventies.
These abilities mean we will be going much deeper into what these things are, how they work and, most important, how they can be refined and targeted as more specific drug componds designed for specific effects. They will become sophisticated medications, hopefully without those awful pharma TV ads.
And this will create a divide among recreational users, explorers, and those seeking therapeutic treatments. As Pollan has already noted, this divide exists as access is legally limited and demand is higher than ever, resulting in an underground treatment community and a scientific research community that exist in an uneasy detente.
A third emerging scenario is driven by climate change issues. We don’t know how many more of these compounds may be lost forever, as habitats are destroyed for short term gain. We are not only destroying habitats, we are destroyimg thousands of years of accumulated tribal knowledge.
This may be countered by what I consider one of the most fascinating things to emerge, the understanding of mycellium (the vast underground webs that mushrooms are just the surface flowers of) and its relationship to forest ecosystems. These natural networks appear to weave together a complex story we know little about with implications of strange things like trees in a forest communicating and supporting each other, using underground mycellium networks to share nutrients and communicate about pests and who knows what?
(by the way, if you haven’t watched the doc Fantastic Fungi, it is available to stream and is fascinating and pretty mindblowing)
Ultimately psychedelics are just one piece of a vast interconnected puzzle
As science focuses on these emerging aspects of these ancient systems, a new view of the world and our place in it will also emerge. It’s interesting to speculate how that changes us as participants in something much bigger than our limited view of reality.
I will continue to explore things like this that interest me as I learn more. I have done so all my life and it has been constantly rewarding. If for nothing else it reminds me of the amazing beauty and power of this life in the remarkable world.