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Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • In his latest book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” Michael Pollan delves into the potential benefits of hallucinogenic drugs
  • The term “psychedelic” is made up of the two words “psyche” (mind) and “delos,” a Greek word meaning to manifest or reveal. In essence, the drugs “reveal the mind”
  • In the 1950s, psychedelics were widely studied as treatments for addiction, alcoholism and depression
  • Driving the renaissance of psychedelics in the current day are well-respected institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, where researchers have investigated the benefits of magic mushrooms on depression in patients dying of cancer
  • Psychedelics quiet the area of the brain where negative narratives about ourselves are born, allowing you to get out of whatever destructive thought pattern you might be in. As such they may also be useful for obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictions of all kinds

In the video above,1 Tim Ferriss interviews Michael Pollan, author of seven books, primarily related to food. In his latest book, "How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence," he delves into the potential benefits of hallucinogenic drugs.

The interview took place at the recent South by Southwest event. As noted by Pollan, the term "psychedelics" was coined in 1957 by Humphry Osmond, a psychiatrist who explored the use of hallucinogenic drugs in the treatment of mental illness. A paper2 by Janice Hopkins Tanne describes how Osmond investigated the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on alcoholics.

In the 1950s, psychiatrists working with drugs would often use them on themselves, and hallucinogenics such as LSD were thought to mimic the mind of the mentally ill, allowing the therapist to experience what a psychotic patient might be going through. However, Pollan notes, they realized that the experiences they were having "felt far too good" to be pure psychosis.

Hence Osmond came up with the term psychedelic, which is made up of the two words "psyche" (mind) and "delos," a Greek word meaning to manifest or reveal. In essence, the drugs "reveal the mind." "It suggests these drugs bring the mind into a kind of observable space," Pollan says.

The Rise and Fall of Psychedelics

Pollan, like most, was under the impression that psychedelics were a product of the 1960s, but in fact, by the time these drugs became a counterculture mainstay, researchers had already studied psychedelics for some 15 years, primarily as treatments for addiction, depression and relieving the fear of death among those dying from cancer — the very same indications for which these drugs are being studied nowadays as well.

According to Pollan, much of this research produced good results, showing psychedelics could be quite useful in the psychiatric arena. Unfortunately, as the counterculture began using psychedelics, it became increasingly difficult for researchers to investigate the compounds.

In the mid-'60s, public opinion turned against the drugs — as Pollan says, "there was this moral panic about the use of psychedelics" — resulting in their demonization. President Richard Nixon attacked psychedelics, saying they were the reason young men weren't willing to join the Vietnam War.

"LSD, which encourages people question all sorts of frameworks in their life, contributed to that," Pollan says. "Certainly, Nixon thought so, and he started the drug war, trying to remove the chemical infrastructure of the counterculture."

Pollan goes on to discuss how the psychedelic movement created an unprecedented generation gap "where the young had a rite of passage that the old didn't know anything about."

In essence, psychedelics, through their mind-expanding ability, allowed the younger generation a glimpse into their consciousness that generations before them had not experienced and did not understand. Historically, rites of passage have been presided over by the elders.

"Here, the young were organizing their own searing rite of passage," Pollan says. "And it plopped them down into a country of the mind that adults couldn't recognize, and that was very threatening too." 

The Psychedelic Renaissance

By the early 1970s, psychedelic research had ground to a halt as the war on drugs took hold. However, after being ignored for decades, scientists are now starting to take a second look at these compounds.

Driving the renaissance of psychedelics in the current day are well-respected institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, where researchers have investigated the benefits of psilocybin3magic mushrooms — on those dying from cancer.

They've shown that magic mushrooms will often eliminate the paralyzing fear some patients have about dying by allowing them to have a transformative spiritual experience. Trials are also now underway to assess the medicinal use of magic mushrooms for depression and anxiety.

Alcoholism, smoking and eating disorders are other conditions for which psychedelics may be useful, Pollan says, adding that the main thing these drugs appear to do is allow behavioral changes.

They quiet the area of the brain where negative narratives about ourselves are born, allowing you to get out of whatever destructive thought pattern you might be in. As such they may also be useful for mental disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and addictions of all kinds.

The Benefits of 'Reverse Trauma' and Ego Dissolution

How is it that psychedelics can have such a profound lasting effect? Ferriss wonders. In many cases, patients report benefits from one, two or three sessions lasting for months or years.4

According to David E. Nichols, Ph.D., former pharmacology professor and distinguished chair in pharmacology at Purdue University, who is considered one of the world's leading experts on psychedelics, LSD diffuses into your brain for three to four hours, then diffuses out — leading some to never see the world the same way again.5

According to Pollan, the reason for this does not have to do with pharmacological effects, rather it's the experience itself that the patients undergo. Pollan compares it to a "reverse trauma," where the experience is so profoundly healing, psychologically, that the effects don't wear off. Indeed, in studies patients will often state that their psychedelic trip was one of the most profound and transformative experiences of their lives.

"So, you really have to look at the phenomenology of the experience,6" Pollan says, "which, when it works best, is what they call a mystical type of experience. I think what's central to that though is that it's an experience of ego dissolution — complete depersonalization.

It is your ego, in a way, that writes and enforces those destructive narratives, and if you can shut it off for a period of time, and realize that there's another ground upon which you can stand — that you're not identical to your ego — then you can get some perspective on it. That, I think, is very positive.

The ego builds walls. It isolates us from other people; it isolates us from nature. It's defensive by definition. And when you bring down those walls of the psyche, what happens? Well, you merge with something else. There's less distinction between you and the other …

As the doors of perception open … there's this incredible flow [between these lines of connection]. It sounds banal, but very often what flows between those connections is love — powerful feelings of love and reconnection …

A lot of the problem with depression and addiction is disconnection. Addicts get to that point where their connection to that bottle is more important to them than their connection to their children, their spouse.

It's an astonishing thing — and the [psychedelic] drugs appear to help people reconnect. So yeah, you're only having this temporary experience, but it has this remarkable authority, and that's one of the most curious things about it."

Spiritual Disconnection Is a Dis-Ease Psychedelics Can Address

Pollan goes on to note that these mystical experiences are not perceived as something subjective, but rather the revelation of an objective truth; a true knowledge. He refers to the psychedelic experience as a "complete reset of the mind" that produces dramatic changes in the patient's outlook and behavior.

In the interview, Pollan also recounts one of his own experiences with magic mushrooms, which he did under careful supervision and guidance. While some parts of the experiences were unpleasant, in the end he experienced a dissolution of self, coming to the realization that allowing the ego to fall away did not result in destruction — he was still alive.

This, he believes, is how psychedelics help cancer patients get over their fear of impending death. The trip is, in a way, a rehearsal of physical death, and it demonstrates that physical dissolution is not the end — your consciousness remains.

In the film "The Reality of Truth,"7 Deepak Chopra notes that psychotropic drugs "help people break out of the hallucination of separation."

Many believe psychotropic plants have a rightful place in human life, as they can act as a key, if you will, to expanded levels of consciousness and a personal experience of the divine, and by making them illegal, we've effectively been barred from using natural substances to explore the spiritual dimensions of our being that can be tremendously healing and beneficial.

In 2015, London-based psychiatrist James Rucker penned a commentary8 in the British Medical Journal, arguing for the reclassification of LSD and magic mushrooms — which he notes are far less addictive and harmful than heroin and cocaine — in order to make it easier to conduct much needed medical research on them. According to Rucker:9

"Hundreds of papers, involving tens of thousands of patients, presented evidence for their use as psychotherapeutic catalysts of mentally beneficial change in many psychiatric disorders, problems of personality development, recidivistic behavior, and existential anxiety."

Psychedelics Are Currently Illegal in the US

For clarity's sake, let me state that I am not advocating the use of illegal substances. Doing so may land you in prison, regardless of how pure your intentions. Psilocybin, for example, is a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act.10,11

The mushrooms are typically ingested in their fresh or dried form, or can be made into tea. Large doses have been known to induce panic and/or psychosis, which is why careless experimentation is strongly discouraged (in addition to their use being illegal). Other psychedelics include LSD, DMT (an active ingredient in ayahuasca) and mescaline, just to name a few.

At present, the only legal way I know of to use psychedelics in the U.S. is to be part of a registered study. Other countries have different laws pertaining to psychedelics and their use. Meditation and certain breathing practices have been shown to produce similar experiences of ego dissolution, and is a perfectly safe and legal way of exploring your own consciousness.

One such way is sudarshan kriya yoga (SKY),12 a breathing technique taught by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. More than 65 studies have investigated the effects of this technique.13 Among the findings, studies have shown it can help:

  • Increase deep sleep by 218 percent
  • Increase hormone secretion associated with well-being by 50 percent
  • Decrease stress hormones by 56 percent
  • Decrease depression by 70 percent
  • Reduce anxiety by 44 percent

Like other experts on breathing, Shankar notes that for every emotion, there's a corresponding rhythm of breath. Since the two are linked, by regulating your breathing, you regulate your emotions. In "The Reality of Truth," documentary host Mike Zapolin found he could enter into a psychedelic state simply using his breath.

Pollan on Finding and Redefining Spirituality

Pollan notes that after his psychedelic experience, he became a better meditator, having a better sense of the state he was trying to achieve and maintain. He also says the psychedelic experience helped him understand what spirituality is.

"I really was not a spiritual person," he says. "I describe myself as spiritually retarded … Part of that is because I'm very much a materialist in my philosophical outlook … that everything can be explained by the laws of nature and energy …

I believed that to be a spiritual person you had to believe in the supernatural, and I was allergic to that. I didn't believe in the supernatural. But this experience, especially the merging that went on, made me realize that's not the right duality — the opposite of spiritual is not material; the opposite of spiritual is egotistical.

It is our ego that keeps us from the profound connections, whether with your loved ones, with humanity, with nature, with a piece of music. That's the wall, and [when] you can bring down that wall, that to me is the spiritual experience … For me that was the biggest take-away…"

Nurturing Your Spirituality as a Component of Optimal Health

In closing, I want to reiterate that I do not condone or recommend imbibing illegal drugs. Should you decide to experiment, make sure you do it in a place where it's legal, and under the guidance of someone with the proper experience.

The most important point, I think, is that what these kinds of psychedelic experiences tell us is that spiritual connection is an important part of life, health and happiness.

As mentioned, the good news is you're not restricted to psychedelic drugs to achieve similar benefits. A consistent meditation and/or breathing practice can help you reap similar benefits, albeit over a longer period of time.

If you want to learn more about psychedelics and their potential clinical use, Pollan suggests delving into the work of the leading authority in the field, Robin Carhart-Harris, Ph.D.,14 head of psychedelic research at the Center for Neuropsychopharmacology at the Imperial College London.

One of Carhart-Harris' papers, described by Pollan and Ferriss as being excellent, is "The Entropic Brain: A Theory of Conscious States Informed by Neuroimaging Research With Psychedelic Drugs."5

A listing of his research papers16 can be found on his home page on the Imperial College London website. You can also find lectures given by Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., on psilocybin and other psychedelic therapies, which are available on YouTube.