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The Psychedelic Renaissance Will Not Be Contained

Psychoactive hallucinogens are making a comeback—and that’s good news for mental health treatment

Nathaniel Allen
Jan 28 · 10 min read
Credit: Tara Moore/Stone/Getty Images

Psychedelics are primed to go mainstream in 2019. Riding positive media hype and the tentative approval from the cultural elite, industry leaders are starting to bank on the “psychedelic renaissance,” the coolest drug since marijuana. Already embraced by pop culture leaders, such as Joe Rogan and Vice, psychedelics are now receiving the long-awaited endorsement from modern scholars, as evidenced by famed food and botany author Michael Pollan landing his exploration of psychedelics at number one on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. Pollan has put together some of his most in-depth work in recent decades, building on the scientific discoveries of influential researchers with the cultural grounding of famous psychonauts.

Receiving such a calm and measured outlook from Pollan is an important step in the effort to bring psychedelic molecules out from the dark internet forums and silk roads of the online marketplace to the front pages of respectable newspapers and science journals. After 50 years of banishment, these drugs are no longer dismissed. Instead, they’re proving to be a remarkable counter to modern malaise.

Cast aside as grandiose delirium from ’60s festival groupies and their guru psychologist Timothy Leary, Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind makes the case that psychedelics in their various forms ought to be reconsidered as options in mental health treatment. Pollan presents the case that behind glossy profile pictures and smartphones ceaselessly buzzing with notifications, likes, and follows, the West is on the brink of a depression crisis.

Our current mental health philosophy is in need of change.

For the past 20 years, Americans have adopted mental health pharmaceuticals at a sinister pace, while the declared rates of diagnosis only continue to rise. Prescriptions for antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, opioids, and stimulants have reached such saturated use that marine life is suffering from the effects of the secondhand waste. Despite the abundance of these medications, Pollan points out that there are still 45,000 suicides each year in the United States, which is “more than the number of deaths from either breast cancer or auto accidents.” He writes, “Broken does not seem too harsh a characterization of such a system.”

A large portion of the book summarizes psychedelic research efforts that have so far demonstrated effectiveness in treating a wide range of mental ailments, such as depression, OCD, and substance addiction. Pollan suggests that in a controlled and therapeutic setting, such drugs have the potential to treat a variety of mental illnesses. For example, Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuropharmacologist cited by Pollan, recently published a trial that showed more than a third of patients achieved full remission from depression with psilocybin treatment at a three-month follow-up. This would be an astounding result compared to typical antidepressants, some of which are indistinguishable from placebo.

Despite the promising results from today’s medical trials, the golden age of psychedelic research has likely already come and gone, occurring in the late 1950s-1960s, when the drugs were synthesized. The psychiatric establishment saw such spectacular results from early trials, Pollan writes, that they referred to them as “miracle drugs.” It was with this enthusiasm that the word “psychedelic,” meaning “mind-manifesting,” was termed by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in 1957. Seen as affecting a temporary state of psychosis in otherwise normal human brains, scientists had the first tangible evidence for a neurochemical explanation of mental conditions that were thought to be purely psychological. This discovery is one of the major theoretical leaps to the modern “disease model” of mental illness, the basis for the pharmaceutical explosion in the last few decades. If mental states are biochemical at their core, undesirable conditions could be “drugged out” of existence.

Current science maintains that psychedelics act on the brain through the tryptamine pathways, which include the commonly known neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, but also psychoactive hallucinogens—DMT, psilocybin, and LSD, among others. Pollan explains that LSD in particular has a stronger connection to serotonin’s 5-HT2A receptor than serotonin itself does, “making this an instance where the simulacrum is more convincing, chemically, than the original.” In other words, the body prefers a synthetic version to the natural product. Pollan finds that some scientists believe this bizarre phenomenon indicates a “natural psychedelic” flows naturally in the human bowels, potentially during normal dream states.

Such advances in chemistry and brain imaging allow for a fuller understanding of the body’s psychedelic network. For example, the “default mode network” (DMN), one of the top buzzing topics of neuroscience today, has recently been implicated. The DMN refers to a recognizable pattern of human brain activity that is activated when we are at rest and silent while we are engaged in goal-directed activity like playing chess or calculating a tip. Carhart-Harris believes this network “shuts off” during psychedelic use, allowing for emotion, memories, and other mysterious thoughts to escape from the depths of our “automatic processes” and receive the full focus of consciousness:

When all that sensory information [during a trip] threatens to overwhelm us, the mind furiously generates new concepts (crazy or brilliant, it hardly matters) to make sense of it all — “and so you might see faces coming out of the rain.” That’s the brain doing what the brain does — that is, working to reduce uncertainty by, in effect, telling itself stories.

During his travels around the country interviewing various leaders of the psychedelic community, Pollan personally experimented with many of the compounds, having positive experiences with the likes of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Putting his insights into words was almost embarrassingly pedestrian for the accomplished writer, but each revelation burst with emotion and spiritual ecstasies. Pollan realized that the ego-directed habits he clung to as a writer had increasingly dulled his joie de vivre. He writes of one of his trips, “Suddenly I saw my ego in a new light, and it was something I could control a little bit better… Now, I might have gotten that in ten years of psychotherapy, I don’t know. But I got it in an afternoon”:

All it took was another perceptual slant on the same old reality, a lens or mode of consciousness that invented nothing but merely (merely!) italicized the prose of ordinary experience, disclosing the wonder that is always there in a garden or wood, hidden in plain sight… Nature does in fact teem with subjectivities—call them spirits if you like—other than our own; it is only the human ego, with its imagined monopoly on subjectivity, that keeps us from recognizing them all, our kith and kin.

Pollan wonders, if we’re able to maintain the current trajectory of caution and scientific respect for psychedelics, could we avoid the mass paranoia that derailed the movement 50 years earlier? He and other enthusiasts hope psychedelics can be responsibly utilized “without the spirit of a revolution” and importantly, keep the drugs inside the laboratory walls—lest young people get ahold of them and derail the movement with “antics,” “misbehavior,” and “evangelism” similar to ol’ Tim Leary.

Our current mental health philosophy, with its dedication to tranquilizing discomfort and stimulating away inattention, is in need of change. Yet the flawed treatment system can’t be the cause of our national dysphoria. A better sweeping generalization of the issue would be Durkheim’s anomie, a concept he formulated to help describe the new relationship between the individual and economic society during the 19th century Industrial Revolution. It now refers to the more general alienation individuals face as long-standing norms are discarded and cultural values and traditions are increasingly viewed as outdated obstructions on the road to the “New Way.” We saw the rise of this feeling in turn-of-the-century films Office Space (1999), American Psycho (2000), and Fight Club (1999), where Tyler Durden articulated the sense that:

Our Great War’s a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.

As the pace of technological immersion has dramatically increased, many are convinced that we are entering the dawn of the “Digital Revolution,” which more or less began in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone. As consumer eyes drifted away from television, newspapers, and print for mobile apps that miniaturized desired content, information and entertainment became not only free but condoned for use at all waking and sleeping moments.

Esteemed New York University faculty member Jonathan Haidt and civil liberties expert Greg Lukianoff have been at the forefront of this narrative. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, they show that the mental health trends listed by Pollan are magnified in universities, which they say are filled with anxious and paranoid students who are overparented and underprepared. The professors argue that something drastic has changed in how young people are prepared for adult life. The social life of the average teen changed substantially between 2007 and 2012 thanks to smartphones, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. They quote Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, who famously lamented: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

American productivity has remained strong in the face of phone addiction but a significant majority of workers report a lack of meaningful connection to their jobs. Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report shows that roughly 51 percent of Americans are “not engaged” at work, defined as “just kind of present,” while an additional 16 percent actively detest their jobs. That leaves 33 percent connected enough at work to qualify as “engaged.”

The disintegration of face-to-face community, combined with the rise of a digital propaganda war for our attention, has left many lost and bewildered.

Though it is hard to imagine a time in history that a majority of workers actively enjoyed their jobs, Americans could often count on family and civic obligations to keep them busy. A recent Pew Research report found that 40 percent of Americans said family was the most important source of meaning for them, followed by religion at 20 percent. But despite fears of job automation and robot workers, technological change appears to have already impacted the social realm, where the fabric of relationships has been ruptured by the blur of digital surrogates.

A New York Times opinion piece cited data that, in the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were “often lonely,” but today, that figure has doubled to more than 40 percent. The nuclear family is no longer; as New York Times commentator David Brooks writes, “most children born to mothers under 30 are born outside of marriage. There’s been a steady 30-year decline in Americans’ satisfaction with the peer-to-peer relationships at work.” The disintegration of face-to-face community, combined with the rise of a digital propaganda war for our attention, has left many lost and bewildered as the technological tides have rolled on without them.

While we find historically high rates of mental suffering, general skepticism of the technological society’s ability to coexist peacefully with humanity dates back to at least 1932, the year Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was published. In the book, Huxley imagines a futuristic society that successfully eliminated dissent by achieving symbols of “advanced progress,” some of which we remain seduced by today: fine-tuned genetic trait selection, radical sexual liberation, the fountain of youth, and a culture that values leisure and pleasure-seeking, all fueled by a perfected form of opium engineered to keep dark thoughts at bay.

As fate would have it, Huxley would soon discover psychedelics and become one of the first proponents and a prolific writer on the topic. The impact on his philosophical outlook was immediate, as the drugs helped him conceive of a spiritual alternative to his dystopian ennui. According to his second wife, he considered the discovery of psychedelics to be one of the three major scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, along with splitting the atom and the discovery of gene-editing.

In his final novel, Island, published shortly before his death, Huxley distilled many of his ideas over the years into a world effectively described as a “psychedelic utopia.” The culture was based on balance with the local environment, fueled by the belief that overcoming the all too human desire to overconsume would require an immense religious effort, with regular ceremonies, scriptures, and symbols designed to support “the modest ambition to live as fully human beings in harmony with the rest of life.” He viewed man’s desire to outconsume his neighbor to be the primary problem of the 20th century:

What are boys and girls for in America? Answer: mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of television, meprobamate, positive thinking and cigarettes.

Despite these and other recreational uses gaining popularity, Pollan naïvely hopes to contain the drugs “behind the laboratory walls,” favoring medical professionals and therapeutic guides to lead the private recalibration of the ego. This conservative approach echoes Huxley, from 50 years ago, when he criticized Timothy Leary for hijacking the transformative effects of psychedelics to accelerate the crazed social upheaval of the ’60s. Leary believed that once a few million Americans had achieved psychedelic enlightenment, there would be a radical revolutionary force to dismantle the structural engines of Cold War capitalism that degraded humanity and plundered the environment.

While Huxley did not want to be another “Mr. LSD,” riling up young people with delusions of grandeur, he saw the need for a new system of organization, separate from capitalism and Soviet authoritarianism. His Island was built with the principles of “fertility control and the limited production and selective industrialization which fertility control makes possible, the road that leads toward happiness from the inside out, through health, through awareness, through a change in one’s attitude toward the world; not toward the mirage of happiness from the outside in, through toys and pills and nonstop distractions.”

From various media shamans and mainstream psychonauts, we are taught that under the “trip,” we will, for a little while, experience the shattering of ego. But, Burning Man aside, any employed experimenter knows that such blabbering is incompatible with the sober demands of corporate culture. It will be impossible, if the drugs are used on a mass scale, to limit the experiences to simple blips of immense pleasure for the weekend so we can show up to work on Monday. Private recalibration may work for successful boomers like Pollan or Waldman, who are simply looking for a little zest in their golden years. For the rest, psychedelics will support the next wave of rebellion and a new Leary to censor and excommunicate.

Originally published at unfashionableguff.com on Dec. 11, 2018.

Nathaniel Allen

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Writer and Researcher based in Washington DC. Twitter @unfshnable_guff