Citizen science to chart the possible contents and states of human consciousness

Of all the >50 manuscripts I had the (mis)fortune of authoring or co-authoring, this I consider the most special at the personal level. I hope it also turns out to be relevant at the scientific level. And it might as well be the case that the reasons why it is so important for me are closely related to those that could make it important for others.

(I will not summarize here the contents of our paper “The Varieties of the Psychedelic Experience: A Preliminary Study of the Association Between the Reported Subjective Effects and the Binding Affinity Profiles of Substituted Phenethylamines and Tryptamines“, you are encouraged to read at least its abstract before going on).

Prediction of the similarity of the experiences elicited by psychedelic drugs based on the similarity of their binding affinity profiles at an ample range of receptors.

Early signs that this manuscript was somehow “different“ to previous ones appeared in the form of alternating feeling proud about the research, then doubtful, then skeptical and finally even ashamed, with this cycle repeating many and many times before the paper was accepted.

So why all these ups and downs, all this soaring and diving; quoting a poem by Virginia Woolf, “why was all this passion for?“.

After taking some time to reflect upon this, I discovered a number of potential reasons for these feelings. They are the following:

First: There are many levels of description in consciousness research, and psychedelic research could be considered as a sub-field of consciousness research. From the molecular, microscopic and reductionist end, towards the opposite level of description, i.e. phenomenology or “what is it like“ to have a certain experience. In this paper we linked both ends directly, without consideration of any level in between. We related action at the molecular level with phenomenology; we made the snake bite its own tail, so to say. And this was for quite some time confusing to me. Shouldn’t you need to go through all the intermediate levels of description –the cell, the networks of cells, the cortical columns, the networks of columns, etc– to do what we wanted to do?

Well, it turns out that apparently you don’t. I had this feeling of being almost ashamed of bypassing all these intermediate levels, because it is there where you can (in principle) identify the causal links between both ends of the description. But, on the other hand, if you settle for correlation instead of causation (pretty much a standard settlement neuroscientists make these days), it happens that you can perform this jump from the first level to the last one. It is like jumping over a canyon without even practicing before with a small puddle of water. But one thing is certain: you know very well whether you made it to the other side of the canyon or not.

Second: I’ve said many times jokingly that using scales such as the Altered State of Consciousness (ASC) scale to quantify the psychedelic experience represents a methodological remnant of behaviorism. Instead of having a rat pull a lever, you have a human being ticking boxes on a piece of paper. This is to exaggerate my opinion that human consciousness should be probed by means of free, unconstrained experiential narratives. This method of analysis presents a host of methodological problems by itself. However, I want to stress that these reports are deliberate acts of speech. So in one case you have this certain “black box“; you give LSD to this “black box“, and then the “black box“ outputs a series of numbers. Following our proposed alternative approach, you do the same thing to the “black box“, but then the “black box“ produces speech, and through the speech act tells you “what it feels“ like to be a black box— even more, “what if feels like“ to be a black box under LSD!.

So, the fact that our methods worked very well represents a validation of free unconstrained experiential narratives as windows into consciousness, which is in my opinion an important methodological step forward in the field.

Third: AlexanderSasha“ Shulgin, organic chemist by profession (and a very good one at that, by the way), used to say he was a “tool maker“. He made tools for consciousness research. And he made a whole bunch of them. Most of them are published in two books called PIHKAL and TIHKAL (if you don’t know what the acronyms mean, you are encouraged to find out!).

But what do I mean by “he published his tools“? Sasha was all about what these days people call “open science“ or “open methods“. Nowadays, it is increasingly common for researchers to upload their Python notebooks to allow the replication of their analyses. Sasha Shulgin published precise instructions for the chemical syntheses of his “tools“ for consciousness research in the second halves of both PIHKAL and TIHKAL — and he got himself into some deep problems with the authorities after doing that, by the way. Because, as you might guess, Shasha’s tools are psychedelic molecules that can be used in different contexts, and as anything in life, they can be misused and abused to the point of death. Yet, he insisted that even though people misused these tools for recreational purposes, his goal when creating them was to provide novel methods for scientists to alter consciousness in subtle ways, so that they could understand it better.

Our paper is the first time I am aware of someone using Sasha Shulgin’s tools the way he meant them to be used, at least quantitatively. Since Sasha passed away in 2014, we will never know what he would have thought of our paper. But I am inclined to think he would have liked it, and I feel very proud and happy about this prospect.

Fourth: The final reason is somewhat pessimistic and it can be summarized in the following statement: “This is as good as it gets“.

By this I don’t mean that our paper is as good as it gets. I am sure other teams could have done a much better job with the available sources of data. But it is precisely in the sources of data where one has to admit (at least to the present day) that “this is as good as it gets“. And I mean this in a deep and non-trivial way.

Because, once you convince yourself that the “black box“ telling you all about being a “black box“ is an useful way to study consciousness (and especially altered states of consciousness), you realize the following fact: there is no way an Ethics committee would grant us or any other lab permit to study the 20 or so psychedelic drugs we investigated in our paper in a controlled laboratory setting, with a double blind placebo controlled protocol, etc. And they wouldn’t because they shouldn’t. It would be unethical to administer hundreds of doses of DOI, DOB, 2C-B-Fly, etc, to experimental subjects. You just can’t do that (And please don’t, even if an Ethics committee tells you are allowed to do it!).

Does this mean our work was “unethical“? Upon brief reflection, the answer is an emphatic “no“, unless you believe in backwards causation. Because Erowid users had already done it (upon) themselves many times, for many different drugs, and their self-reported narratives are available for everybody to read at the Erowid Experience Vaults (www.erowid.org).

It could be argued that the sharing of the narratives may encourage others to try the drugs users are writing about. This has been a contentious issue from the earliest stages of Erowid. However, I believe this concern is dissipated by the fact that Erowid is a truly pioneering website in providing information on harm reduction, safe dosage, set and setting considerations, and so on. Erowid is actively involved in taking care of its contributors.

I do believe, however (and this is the final reason this paper is so important to me) that the Erowid Experience Vaults must be considered as a prime example of what nowadays has become quite fashionable and known as “citizen science“. A paradigmatic example of “citizen science“ is the iNaturalist website. In this website, people like you and me use their smartphones to photograph different species of birds, mammals, plants, etc, and then upload their photos together with the geolocalized coordinates of the observation.

From this perspective, it is absolutely clear to me that in the same way citizens explore the natural world using the iNaturalist website, citizens also explore the inner world of consciousness using the Erowid website. Some of the drugs they consumed in this exploration are considered very safe, such as LSD. Others can be highly dangerous. But we have to admit that it was highly valuable for us (i.e. in terms of our research) that an ample range of compounds was explored by Erowid users. Many of these compounds can induce experiences that most people would consider unpleasant, to say the least.

Following the analogy, I suspect iNaturalist users would love to obtain research-grade and very close observations of grizzly bears (because one can imagine those photographs are scarce!). Yet iNaturalist is not liable in case you get too close to the bear, and the bear kills you. It does however benefit if you survive the encounter and upload your photograph. And as opposed to Erowid, I haven’t seen in any guidelines in the iNaturalist website for surviving a close encounter with a grizzly bear.

So when the “ethical problems“ of Erowid are discussed, one must always raise the same question all over again until a satisfactory answer is given: are these “ethical problems“ considered to arise only because they relate to drug-induced experiences? Why do we draw a strict line between the ethical problems of drug-induced experiences and other kind of experiences? Furthermore, why do we fixate as a society on distinguishing so clearly between drug-induced from other kinds of experiences; for instance, experiences like bungee jumping, one night stands, riding a motorcycles at the highway — all of which are experiences that carry certain risks, regardless as to whether they are drug-induced or not.

To conclude: The final sentence of our Acknowledgment section reads: “Finally, we also thank the founders, curators, contributors and volunteers of Erowid Center for sharing their data and for their decades of work on the experience report collection.

This is a real and heartfelt acknowledgment. Willingly or not, some Erowid users went out, “photographed the grizzly bear“ and shared their experience with everybody. This made our article possible in the first place, and while there will be future sources of data (we envision an Open Platform that could supersede Erowid, at least in some ways), we must acknowledge the following fact: Fire and Earth Erowid (and their team of collaborators) are truly pioneers in this kind of citizen science, and I hope that their groundbreaking work will be acknowledged by more and more researchers in the future.