The new psychedelic renaissance: Science, psychology, and the sacred


It’s not that you, and I, and all of us, don’t already know that the consciousness revolution is back on, and that the psychedelic research that was aborted in the 1960s has now returned with a vengeance, and that it’s not just the medical and scientific aspects but the general cultural effects of the whole thing that are likely to be profound. It’s not that we haven’t noted such things here before.

It’s that suddenly, in the last several weeks, there’s an outpouring of cool mainstream journalism about it, mostly occasioned by the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference that was held in Oakland, California in April. Taken en masse, it provides a very nice bird’s-eye view of the present scientific situation and cultural moment.

To wit and for instance. . .

From a public radio station in California:

LSD, Ecstasy, psilocybin — these are not drugs generally associated with medicine. But they are all taking center stage at this weekend’s “Psychedelic Science 2013” conference in Oakland, which brings together more than 100 scientists from around the world doing research on the use of these drugs to treat, among other things, alcohol and tobacco addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

. . . Scientists participating in the conference include doctors from UCLA, NYU and Johns Hopkins. Their work includes studies on LSD to treat alcoholism; psilocybin to ease end of life anxiety and fight tobacco addiction; Ecstasy to treat Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome; and Ayahuasca for drug addiction.

— Stephanie O’Neill, “Psychedelic Science Conference Explores Medical and Therapeutic Value of LSD, Ecstasy and Psilocybin,” KPCC (Southern California Public Radio), April 19, 2013

From Wired magazine:

Timothy Leary really screwed things up for science. By abandoning the scientific method for a mystical embrace of hallucinogenic drugs, the Harvard-professor-turned-LSD-evangelist became a symbol of ’60s-era drug-fueled degeneracy. Worse, the ensuing backlash pushed these drugs underground and caused an enormously promising field of research to go dormant for nearly half a century.

Or so say some scientists who met in Oakland, California last weekend for a conference on the science and therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. “The antics of Timothy Leary really undermined the scientific approach to studying these compounds,” psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University told the audience.

But the times they are a-changin’. In recent years, a small cadre of scientists has cautiously rekindled the scientific study of psychedelics. At the conference, they reported new findings on how these drugs scramble brain activity in ways that might help explain their mind-bending effects. They’re also slowly building a case that these drugs might help people with depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Roughly a dozen small clinical trials are now underway worldwide. But the idea isn’t “take two tabs of acid and call me in the morning.” Instead, these trials are testing the idea that psychedelics taken in a therapist’s office as part of a series of psychotherapy sessions can make talk therapy more effective.

— Greg Miller, “Open Your Mind to the New Psychedelic Science,” Wired, April 26, 2013

From The Chronicle of Higher Education (!):

The idea of using drugs best known for their mind-expanding properties for therapy is not new, but it has spent several decades in the scholarly wilderness. From the 1950s to the mid-1960s there was a major research effort to explore the use of hallucinogens, particularly LSD, for psychiatric disorders — though much of the work was of questionable scientific rigor and left a blemish on the field. During the period, an estimated 40,000 people worldwide were administered the drugs in the name of science. More than 1,000 academic papers were published spanning basic and treatment research, in which addiction (mostly alcoholism) and terminal-cancer anxiety were the most studied.

But as the drugs burst from the confines of the lab — with assistance from researchers such as the infamous Timothy Leary, of Harvard — and became a signature of the counterculture movement, moral and health concerns triggered national alarm. Politicians and then regulators stepped in, and by 1970 the U.S. government had classified hallucinogens as “Schedule I” substances with no accepted medical use. (MDMA was added in 1985 — “psychedelics” is a catch-all that loosely takes it in, along with hallucinogens and related compounds.) Academic work on possible therapeutic effects came to a standstill.

Psychedelic medicine has made a remarkable comeback, given that public attitudes to the drugs remain negative. Researchers in the field refer to the resurgence as if it had a capital R, as in Renaissance. Getting research under way is still time-consuming and complex — on top of approval by institutional review boards and the FDA, researchers must obtain state and federal licenses to use any Schedule I substance, along with a pure source of the drug. But all that is at least possible, researchers point out, and university departments, once reluctant, are now supportive of the work. “This is the second phase of the resurgence,” says Stephen Ross, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU who directs its psychedelic-research group and is leading the project on psilocybin for cancer anxiety. “The first phase was just being able to get it started again.”

Psychedelic medicine’s organization as a formal academic field is also progressing. The tight community of researchers dedicated to the topic also present work at mainstream conferences: those of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and, this past December, at the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. “Word is getting out, the scientific community is increasingly interested,” says Roland Griffiths, a professor in the psychiatry and neuroscience department at Johns Hopkins. (Griffiths oversees the psilocybin studies there and has published a series of studies looking at the mystical and spiritual effects of psilocybin in healthy volunteers — important to unraveling why it might work as a treatment and to working out safety parameters for moving forward with the therapeutic work.)

— Zoë Corbyn, “Psychedelic Academe,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 2, 2013

Take it from me, there’s some great reading in the Wired and Chronicle articles, with the latter being especially recommendable for its scope and breadth.

But that said, for a take on the subject that combines the same breadth with an added dose of penetrating philosophical insight reaching all the way to its deep-meaningful core, it is (unsurprisingly) impossible to beat Erik Davis in his brilliant essay for Aeon magazine last November:

Today, the meaning of LSD and other psychedelics is once again up for grabs. And the main storytellers are scientists themselves, who have recently been empowered to carry on the sort of controlled, laboratory research that was chased underground 45 years ago. So even as the official war on drugs maintains its bankrupt holding pattern and the digitally remastered offspring of the freaks and hippies keep the counterculture alive at events such as Burning Man, a growing number of psychiatrists, neuroscientists, research chemists and psychologists (and their often private funders) have instigated an extraordinary resurgence. We now see above-board research into the physiological and psychological effects of substances such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT, ayahuasca and ketamine.

From a journalistic perspective, the stories emerging from these studies are story enough, but this resurgence of scientific interest has the additional feature of throwing our changing notions of the self into sharp relief. By tracking the emerging contests over the meaning of ‘psychedelics’, we can glimpse tectonic shifts in the meaning of ‘us’ — particularly, the question of whether there is any room for sacred forces in the increasingly dominant neurological portrait of the human being.

. . . And here, at the very least, the warring parties of religion and secular reductionism might be able to hold a truce. After all, materialists and New Agers, sceptics and shamans, are all united in facing the death of ourselves and our loved ones — a process that remains, even for the most committed sceptic, a mystery poised at the knife edge of meaning and the void. And mysterious ordeals sometimes require mysterious protocols. The gambit of psychedelic research is that third-person explanations will not exhaust the meaningfulness of wrestling with first-person experience. Like our loving and like our dying, our trips are ultimately known, if anything is ultimately known at all, from the inside.

— Erik Davis, “Return Trip,” Aeon, November 2, 2012

Image: “Land of Psychedelic Illumination” by Brian Exton of, via Wikipedia.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on June 6, 2013, in Psychology & Consciousness, Science & Technology, Society & Culture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I hope this trend keeps up. And I’m sure it will. I see it as signifying a deeper change in society, especially since a majority and growing is now in favor of drug decriminalization/legalization.

    We’ve been living under the last remnants of Cold War era oppression. The government tried to create a new rationalization with the War on Terror, but something has shifted that can’t be controlled so simply. The Cold War thaw has been going on my entire adult life with such things as the mainstreaming of alternative culture after the ending of the Comic Book Code.

    There are so many changes happening right now: demographics, public opinion, globalization, capitalist failures, growing secularization, etc. Any single one of them wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but taken together it makes for an unpredictable mix. Backlash phenomena like the Tea Party proves how powerful are these changes, way beyond being reversed.

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