Everyone appreciates a good understatement.
The most famous understatement of recent times probably comes from the Apollo 13 space flight: “Houston, we have a problem.” (The actual quote by astronaut James Lovell was “Houston, we’ve had a problem” — but the Tom Hanks movie cemented it in our cultural memory in the present tense.)
Far lesser-known, my personal all-time favorite understatement comes from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, in his first-ever radio address to his people following the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hirohito said: “The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”
Later in the address, a subordinate got to the point and mentioned, “And oh yeah, we’ve unconditionally surrendered.” That was the fine print that Hirohito just couldn’t say while still sounding sufficiently imperial.
Understatement has its place.
Sometimes maintaining a low profile is important.
(Australians have a saying about “tall poppies” — which is basically the lawn-mowing version of the Icarus myth. The “tall poppy” flower is the first one to get lopped off by the lawnmower, or the scythe, or whatever.)
Scientists studying psychedelics have good reason to value understatement.
They’re dealing with some of the most potent psychoactive compounds known to man — substances that have been branded “Schedule I” drugs by the US Food & Drug Administration (and parallel groups in many other countries). This classification translates to “high potential for abuse, no recognized medical or therapeutic use, no way, no how.”
It’s basically the Scarlet Letter of organic chemistry.
And this despite the acknowledged fact that the effects of these compounds — whether “medicinal” or not — can be screamingly profound. A 2006 study at Johns Hopkins University on the physiological effects of psilocybin on volunteers (psilocybin is the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms) produced, shall we say, some mild cognitive effects as well.
(Can you spot the understatement in the above paragraph?)
Over 50% of the experiment’s participants reported profound “mystical experiences” after taking the psilocybin.
Just what is a mystical experience, you might ask?
Actually, I did ask.
When I interviewed Dr. Frederick Streeter Barrett, from Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, and asked just that question, he replied without missing a beat: “We have a questionnaire for that.”
And that’s one of the paradoxes of the scientific study of psychedelics. Some of the most interesting effects need to be down-converted from the subjective, irrational, and (dare I say it?) spiritual realms into results that can be measured, quantified, and statistically analyzed.
Here’s a statistic that’s hard to understate: Of the experimental participants who had mystical experiences, when asked to reflect back on them many months later, most described their psilocybin-induced “trip” as being among the most personally meaningful experiences in their entire lives.
Now stop and think about for a moment.
There is a pill that, if swallowed, gives you better-than-even odds of having one of the Top 5 most meaningful experiences of your entire life.
(Even when I write it with no exclamation points or flashing red letters, that research-backed statement just sounds like crazy-talk.)
It’s not all sunshine and moonbeams.
That 2006 study’s results do sound amazing. But it’s important to remember that meaningful does not necessarily imply pleasant.
“Bad trips” — which the Hopkins researchers are trying to re-brand as “challenging experiences” — are famously unpleasant, although both terms vastly understate the psychological horror they describe. Despite psilocybin’s having been in use longer than humans have had written language, there is still no sure-fire method to guarantee a user has a “good trip” and not a “bad trip.”
But clearly, something extremely psychologically potent is happening here. So it’s unsurprising that researchers are wondering if — properly harnessed — psychedelics can offer novel solutions for psychological illnesses.
And luckily, after decades of prohibition that extended even to research on these compounds, the pendulum is starting to swing. The data are starting to be gathered. The results are starting to come in.
And the results look promising.