I got inspired by this series idea, so I’ll definitely be bringing a few more. This week I want to focus on psychiatric history of psychedelic experimentation. Not only because it’s very interesting as general reading, but also because it showcases some of the amazing potential of consciousness altering drugs.
Since ancient times, man has used psychedelics as a means to enter the spirit world. The primary task for such states was to diagnose and heal illnesses – typically taken to mean by modern folk as colds and the like – but anything manifesting as ‘mental illness’ would have been brought to the medicine man, or shaman.
In some culture’s naturally occurring altered states like this were taken as the birth of a new shaman. In one African village, such people were taken into the mountains to find a totem. A pretty vast contrast to our pills and mental wards. But we can see the link actually when we see that not only do many ancient herbal medicines actually work scientifically, but the use of psychedelics has since been shown to help with many varied things such as; fear of death in the terminally ill, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism/drug addiction, depression, and cluster headaches. Ancient wisdoms.
So in fact there are many things that psychedelic trance rituals performed in a shamanic manner, that could potentially heal, primarily those afflictions of the mind. And it comes as no surprise to me at least, that Shamanic drugs, are those exact same drugs that science has found with these potentials in a controlled setting – the same kind of nurturing, safe environment, that shamanic healers for Ayahuasca still use for modern seekers after all these years.
And like mindfulness and hypnotism we as modern people are just rediscovering the power that lies inside psychedelic drugs, and inside ourselves now. And these practices I believe should inform us.
“You don’t find light by avoiding the darkness.”
― S. Kelley Harrell
1950s & Alcoholism
Aldous Huxley actually took mescaline in a trial by Humphry Osmond, one of just a few enthusiastic psychiatric experimenters in the 1950s. Osmond actually invented the term psychedelic, to mean ‘mind manifesting’. Osmond studied medicine. He went on to work with Abram Hoffer on studies with LSD. They gave the drug to many patients but worked extensively with alcoholism. They gave the drug to over 2000 alcoholic patients, and found that 40-45% of those given the drug were improved or did not relapse. Which actually pales in comparison with modern trials.
Ronald Sandison over in the UK was doing similar experiments. He actually opened the world’s first dedicated LSD therapy clinic. It was essentially a series of comfortable rooms for therapy, relaxation and music.
Alcoholics Anonymous ended up supporting Osmond in Canada. In the 50’s and 60’s LSD was widely considered the next big thing in therapy. Two forms of therapy became popular. Psychedelic therapy, which as it sounds is therapy and psychedelics at the same time. Psycholytic therapy by contrast was slowly increasing small doses of drug, as an alongside therapy, with talk therapy occurring separately. Some 40,000 patients were treated in this period with LSD.
In the early sixties, the laws were changed, the whole thing was shut down, and LSD instead became popular on the street. End of era.
Underground MDMA & LSD
During the illegal years, scientists and therapists continued to study these substances out of the light of the public eye. And in the late 1970s MDMA came about – and it was not yet illegal (It was banned in 1985). The 70’s birthed a lot of underground researchers, but of course the whole thing is a little obscure being underground.
German psychiatrist Friederike Fischer and her partner Konrad ran experiments on psychedelics and they were eventually arrested. Those experiments were essentially shamanic group therapy groups using first MDMA, then later in the session, LSD or 2CB. When the media got wind of this, they branded the couple as ‘evil’ and accused them of conducting ‘sex orgies’.
Numerous individual cases of MDMA therapy for bereavement and PTSD were reported. I can only assume if those are the visible ones, there was a lot more therapists exploring options for their treatment resistant patients.
Rick Doblin was interested in LSD and eventually MDMA, and frustrated with the limits on research founded MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – an, as it turned out successful attempt to legitimize psychedelic research.
The 1990s cautious revival
When the 1990s saw renewed interest in these substances and their use in therapy, we knew a lot more about the biology. Can we thank MAPS for this revival? I think we can.
Neuroreceptors, brain scanning, chemistry had given us all a much deeper understanding of what these drugs actually did – although the now accepted mechanical explanation for the main well known psychedelics and how they work in the brain, was back then only a theory. As an aside, this is simply the notion that by turning up quiet parts of the brain, and turning down the typically louder parts, more connectivity is enabled, and parts of the brain that don’t normally talk do. Interestingly that notion is not wildly removed from Huxley’s ‘radio tuning’ analogy.
In the 90s, the number of drugs of interest expanded a lot, including psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA. And the scope of the target afflictions broadened a lot too; PTSD, depression, Parkinson’s – so much more than before. Of course the new drug research needed a cleaner image, so in public at least, researchers did not reveal any drug taking behaviour themselves. These trials were more robust, and thoroughly conclusive on the high effectiveness of these drugs for addiction, depression, PTSD and so much more.
Here in the nineties MDMA was studied for resistant PTSD sufferers, war veterans. The follows earlier research on bereavement and MDMA. An incredible 83% of those resistant PTSD sufferers no longer qualified as PTSD, after treatment with MDMA in trials. Honestly as someone with a background in psychology, this sort of result is kind of mind blowing.
We are talking here 70-80%+ effectiveness on many of the 1990s and present decade trials for afflictions that are often treatment resistant, and typically medicines are anywhere between 50 and 70% effective. Some cancer treatments considered valid work less than 5% of the time. What we have there is mental health treatment tools powerful enough to be called ‘cure weapons’.
Not a researcher but rather, a botanist and author – Terence McKenna, was also influential in the 1990s, and wrote about shamanism, the history of drug use, and rave culture. I read his book once ‘Food of the Gods’, it’s very interesting; worth a look.
“I could see the light of eternity, a la William Blake, shining through every leaf. I mean, a bug walking across the ground moved me to tears.[“
2010 and beyond
Changes in laws in many countries have actually adapted now to enable psychedelic research, and also research into cannabis. The cautious rebirth of the 1990s, has ushered in a stricter, and also more productive era of psychedelic research. One can only hope that more countries follow suit here and even; let’s hope allow psychedelics for proven therapies and their indicated conditions.
In 2010 experimentation showed that magic mushrooms can lower fear of death and existential crisis in terminal cancer patients. In this decade, Ketamine has been shown to be profoundly effective (like 80%) for severe and seemingly intractable addictions.
In this decade magic mushrooms were shown to be very effective for depression. When anti-depressants are combined with therapy the level of success is considered very high, around 60-70%. And yet magic mushrooms for depression sit around the same level, actually higher around 70%. That is to say, a single dose session of magic mushrooms as more effective than months of anti-depressants and talk therapy!
And it is in these decade not only brain scans, but neuron path tracing techniques have proven the “dimming” theory of psychedelic action of drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms. We are literally in a psychedelic research boom, a new era of understanding. There was a time when organisations like ‘MAPS’ seemed to me, to be very ambitious. Now we are in a time when the idea that these drugs may actually move into therapy seems tangible, possible. Fingers crossed, let the human spirit be cured of it’s ills!