DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 23: PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY I: HISTORY
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. This month we will have our first of a two part series on an exciting but unorthodox topic of psychedelic therapy.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY PART I:
THE “NEW” ANCIENT MEDICINE
“If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.”
― Alan Watts
The scourge of 1960s cultural change? The most important variable of that culture change? A Schedule I federal narcotic? The future of mental health? A dangerous chemical for certain brain conditions? An intriguing, discrepant, under-researched approach to ancient problems of humanity?
All of these answers would be correct jeopardy responses to the question of “What are psychedelic drugs?". At this point you have likely heard that this concept, which dates back to societies thousands of years BC, has been making a large surge as a curious future direction of mental health. While much of the reputation– good or bad– of the substances precede themselves… we will first review just how much we do know about these chemicals and how they may be swayed one way or another.
WHAT IS A PSYCHEDELIC DRUG?
Well, not sure where else would be logical to start.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines psychedelic drugs (serotonergic hallucinogens) as “powerful psychoactive substances that alter perception and mood and affect numerous cognitive processes. They are generally considered physiologically safe and do not lead to dependence or addiction.”
Commonly discussed psychedelic chemicals can be put in a short list of 4:
Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms” “shrooms”)
Mescaline (“peyote” “san pedro cactus”)
While this is by no means a full list– there are thousands of different psychedelic chemicals that have been discovered– nor is it highlighting the most effective, these compounds are simply the four most commonly used and therefore documented. By nature of the illegality of most of these substances, we have very limited published studies on how they work. Additionally notable, the idea of drugs having ‘psychedelic effects’ is a vague and undefined value, but loosely refers to a drastically altered state of consciousness that is interpreted as meaningful or novel. This may include stereotypical reactions such as visual hallucination or synesthesia (experiencing multiple senses at once, or odd overlaps such as "colors having a smell), but this does not always happen and is better defined as a 'side effect'. Unlike a stimulant or depressant, which will alter consciousness, a ‘psychedelic’ experience is often more introspective and personally relevant rather than just making us feel less cortisol or more dopamine. Two additional common drugs that are seen as having these psychedelic effects but are not technically classified as such would include cannabis and MDMA.
Now this is the part where I have to remind you that our very limited awareness of how neurotransmitters actually work is a large barrier to having more knowledge on the actual, biological reasonings for the experiences that occur after ingesting these chemicals. What we do know: psychedelics, or at least the aforementioned main 4, work by allowing more “flexibility” within serotonin-based processes. Put more simply, psychedelic drugs allow for parts of the brain that would never otherwise communicate to make new connections, and once we make these connections, they have potential to stay with us far longer than we are actually under the influence of the chemicals. If you say the goal of therapy is to understand our patterns and learn to manipulate them to our advantage, the boon of psychedelics is that they allow us to see beyond our own biases and also simply make connections that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to make. If done correctly, it truly can make progress that would otherwise take years happen in a much quicker time span.
With recent rising awareness, you may be curious about the absence of the drug ketamine: ketamine, though used clinically in a very similar way to psychedelic therapy, is in fact classified in the dissociative drug class which would include PCP and DXM. While we will wait until next month for discussion of therapies and treatments, it is important to note that, while amazingly effective and mimicking of psychedelic therapy in certain cases, ketamine is not technically a psychedelic drug.
The unique nature of these novel brain connections VERY CRUCIALLY requires one significant caveat, and that is that unfortunately, certain neurotypes have shown risky interactions with psychedelic substances. In many studies, individuals with bipolar and schizophrenia disorders have shown worsened mental states from psychedelic drug use. Just like far more excavated issues, our understanding of actual neuroscience here is developmental at best, but one of the more intriguing ways to interpret this is looking at the neuron density of these different brains. To put it more clearly, brains that deal with things such as trauma, depression, anxiety or neurodivergence struggle to break through a dense perception of reality, while brains that deal with bipolar or schizoaffective disorders struggle with an abstract and “loose” perception of reality. When introducing psychedelic chemicals which work to create more flexibility in this part of the brain, we can see how the former may find “enlightenment” type results, as they are finally able to “break” these rigid, hardened patterns, and the latter may feel they are “losing their mind”, as they already find difficulty in being grounded.
Above all, the foremost consideration of any kind of treatment involving psychedelics should consider these extremely important factors.
HISTORY OF PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS: ANCIENT
This is perhaps my favorite fact regarding psychedelic drugs: homo sapiens are FAR from the first species to utilize them. In fact, we might owe credit to animals such as the jaguar– the initial catalyst to the discovery of ayahuasca happened after it was observed eating the two ingredients required to create the chemical– for our own discovery. Just a short list of many:
Most likely you have observed how giving a cat catnip shows a clear psychedelic effect
Jaguars are commonly seen eating yagé leaves which contain DMT, some studies have shown that there is an improvement in hunting skills as result
Siberian Reindeer spend much of their time digging for psychedelic mushrooms under the ice
Dolphins have been observed eating pufferfish seemingly just for psychedelic effects
Lemurs are known to use a toxic millipede on their fur as a natural bug repellent, but will also eat the bug for psychedelic effects
Bighorn sheep are commonly seen eating psychedelic lichen
And perhaps most fascinating, mandrills (the colorfully faced cousins of the baboon) will eat ibogaine, a very powerful and long lasting psychedelic, before intense fights with each other.
Again, these are just a few examples of many, many animals which utilize psychedelic drugs for one reason or another, and the nature of this fact at least suggests the idea that our engagement with these chemicals derives from some kind of natural relationship with them.
And if you ask some people, these chemicals are hypothesized to be a potential sparkplug of consciousness in general: the perhaps comically named “Stoned Ape Theory” is a scientifically accepted hypothesis that suggests that consciousness itself may have been sparked by our simian ancestors eating psychedelic drugs. While this is certainly an outlandish and unorthodox theory, there is hard evidence that our human ancestors were large proponents of the utilization of psychedelics.
7,000-9,000 years ago is considered the earliest discovered usage of psychedelic drugs. This hypothesis comes from discoveries in caves in the Sahara as well as Spain, both of which depict detailed hieroglyphs of psychedelic mushrooms native to the area and seem to suggest that they held spiritual powers. Going back to our literal primitive roots in hunter gatherers, recent archeological discoveries have actually suggested that a large part of culture and ritual in these societies did involve psychedelic drugs– and not just during shamanic practices, but rather were ingrained into the culture as a normal part of life. Artifacts found from all habitable continents have shown to have trace substances from a full range of psychotropic chemicals, and one study suggests that the ubiquitous presence of psychedelic usage suggests that it was not even specific to shamanic figures, but rather just a norm of hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
Further, both Greek and Roman societies held seasonal religious ceremonies known as the “Eleusinian Mysteries” which involved consuming a chemical similar to the main ingredient in modern day LSD. In both ancient India and Egypt, psychedelic compounds were ingested in attempts to enter the realm of the afterlife and communicate with the deceased, and in ancient China psychedelic compounds were a primary treatment for… what do you know, mental health! Almost all Mesoamerican and South American societies, from pre-Inca all the way to Mayan, show heavy reverence and spiritual power in psychedelic substances, and this tradition is continued to this day in some parts.
Certain psychedelic-type drugs, notably what are referred to as “designer drugs” or substances made by human chemistry (examples include MDMA and 2CB), are new to society. But as is plain to see, many of the naturally-appearing psychedelics have been utilized by society for as long as we have recorded evidence of society existing! Regardless of stance, the concept of psychedelic therapy is incorrectly labeled as new or groundbreaking; in fact, they are arguably one of, if not THE first ever treatments for mental health in earnest.
HISTORY OF PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS: 20TH CENTURY
Now reading through these descriptions, there are clearly many avenues of how progression– or rather regression– changed perception so drastically. Perhaps these solutions were primitive themselves, in the same way that we have moved beyond “here, bite on this piece of wood” in pain management. Perhaps these solutions just were not showing to be effective over time and became replaced with alternative medicines, and now are making a comeback not dissimilar to fashion trends. But alternatively, and corroborated with many, many historical parallels, the shift in perception from help to hurt may have had more to do with cultural influence and authoritarian governing over the last few hundred years rather than actual lack of efficacy.
Much like many aspects of non-puritan cultures, puritan colonization began to dissuade and demonize usage of psychedelic drugs in connection to paganism and hedonism in the 17th century. This loosely continued to be the status quo for about 300 years. However, it was in 1943 that Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman famously discovered LSD by accident via mistakenly ingesting the chemical during research and then describing vivid hallucinatory euphoria on his bike ride home. This arguably sparked the advent of modern psychedelic research, as Hoffman then dedicated the rest of his life to the study of psychedelic compounds and their uses. By the 1950s, psychedelics were being seen very similarly to how they have been seen the last ~5 years or so, with many scientists excited about the profound results that they had been seeing in regards to using the substances for medicinal or otherwise positive growth.
Perhaps the most commonly correlated period with psychedelic drugs (up until now) is the 1960s “free love” movement in America. Usage of psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD, became identified with counterculture, freedom, forward/progressive thinking and other “hippie culture” ideas. Soon enough, 1966 saw the Drug Abuse Control Amendment, which took a cautious approach stating that more research was needed and therefore the sale and use of recreational psychedelics, leaving it to doctors and scientists to learn more. This was quickly followed by the Controlled Substances Act which deemed all psychedelics to be Schedule I narcotics, indicating that there was ‘high risk of abuse’ and ‘no medical purpose’ for the substances– obviously an ironic statement given today’s shifts in perception. This effectively launched President Nixon’s infamously unsuccessful War on Drugs campaign, which claimed that removing illegal drugs from the streets would end the concept of addiction entirely. This is not only completely illogical from a psychological point of view, but also hypocritical when considering the exact same chemicals can legally be sold by pharmaceutical companies under a very, very different narrative.
Now I will try to stay as neutral as possible, but I feel it is important to also highlight that with 50 years of hindsight, motives for illegality at the time seem at least plausibly skewed for individual gain. Many that worked with Nixon have since come out to explicitly confess that this move was purely for political power, as the cabinet of the late 1960s had strong conservative and traditional values that contrasted directly with ideals of the “hippie movement” as well as oppressed and minority populations. By demonizing the substances they were using, they managed to gain massive political leverage by stigmatizing those with opposing views as bad, drug-deluded, and dangerous.
Though these designations suggested the substances to be Schedule I— in other words, zero usage that is not detrimental— there was also MKUltra, an openly disclosed CIA program which did absolutely heinous and inhumane testing on the most vulnerable parts of the US population using incredibly irresponsible amounts of psychedelic drugs to find out if there were any advantages in uncovering abilities of mind reading, truth telling, or similar, weaponizing uses. All of the burgeoning and legitimate scientific studies on the benefits of psychedelics disappeared for a few decades, and anti-drug campaigns continued to display psychedelic drugs as a dangerous and hedonistic way to “lose your mind” using these very misleading examples, exponentially compounding the stigma and fear around these now-misunderstood chemicals.
While certainly it is foremost important to come to our own conclusions, it is also very notable to remember that outside of this highly campaigned “War on Drugs'' of the last 60 or so years, psychedelic drugs were seen as powerful, caution-requiring, but insightful tools that can help humanity when used responsibly. Looking in staunch opposition to the very tangible and real individual and society-damaging nature of both opioids and crack cocaine, modern scientific research on psychedelics actually refutes many of the terrifying claims made in the 1960s. Perhaps the most interesting? Is that in modern day, older individuals that regularly used psychedelic drugs are statistically LESS likely to be institutionalized for mental health reasons in present than those who never used them. While this stat should NOT be interpreted as hard evidence that these substances are magically life changing, it should emphasize that the largest perceived ‘danger’ posited in the 1960s of essentially “going crazy” after too many trips did not actually show to come to fruition, at least statistically.
PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS IN PRESENT
Although psychedelic drugs remain (mostly) illegal Schedule I narcotics today, the shift in perception and more importantly the societally percieved value of the substances is clear to see. While remaining illegal, research involving psychedelic drugs resumed beginning in the late 90’s and continues to progress into today. By 2010, research had officially reached the surface of societal conversation, though most were focused on the benefits around terminal diagnoses and cluster headaches, with the closest mental health connections appearing in the form of “mystical, profound experiences”. By 2020, research has expanded to show positive effects of psychedelic therapy on mental health symptoms, and centers dedicated to psychedelic research begin to appear.
Looking from the perspective of the United States in present day, 8 states have already made legal exemptions on psychedelic drugs. Though Oregon is the only state with full decriminalization, Colorado, California, Washington, Michigan, and Massachusetts have districts in which psychedelics are decriminalized and both New Mexico and New Hampshire have added legal court exemptions to certain cases involving psychedelics. In Boulder, where Connected Roots is based, psychedelics are currently decriminalized and psilocybin-based therapy should be accessible by late 2024.
While obviously the positives are finally coming to light-- or more accurately, coming back into the light, it would still be unwise to approach this expansion without exhausting heavy caution and taking particular safety measures around potential downsides.
Most prominently, and perhaps a key to understanding where adequate safety can be upheld, is a more comprehensive understanding of the risks regarding those predisposed to bipolar and schizophrenia. This will not only narrow down which areas this approach is effective in, but also prevent the very negative bad reactions which spur the dirty reputation of the substances in general. We can look at the very new development of ketamine therapy as a guide, as while this has had profound and near-miraculous effects in cases of trauma and other specific mental health symptoms, we must recognize that not all are having the same reaction. Just because a substance has a legal designation and can therefore be more quickly implemented does not mean that this is indicative of knowing all we can about a substance. In slight irony, it is interesting to see how this very new, chemically created substance is deemed safe just because of legal status, while thousands of years of accounts of the benefits of illegal psychedelics are more or less ignored.
In earnest, my personal view on why psychedelic drugs could be very effective may land in a rather counterintuitive territory: it’s because this medicine-based method requires the least actual drug use. While this class of drugs has a harrowing and scary reputation, the scientific processes involved are actually one of the most conducive to lifelong change, especially compared to other drug classes such as depressants and dissociatives. “You cannot unsee” is one of my favorite sayings in regards to therapy– this approach uses this concept in the sense that instead of having a chemical which will acutely "mute" our negative feelings, it can be extremely beneficial in learning how to instead "turn down" the noise by having the resilience and emotional openness to face what barriers are actually preventing us from progress.
While psychedelic therapy will hopefully not reach an equivalent drug status of, say, caffeine, the new developments of utilizing these powerful experiences is certainly promising in the treatment of many, many different conditions. Again, unlike the “crutch” aspect that belies most psychotropic substances and creates an eventually unsolvable problem, the function of these chemicals (when used responsibly!) is more like a physical therapist: learning to make slightly different movements to correct structural issues is far longer lasting and far less risky than just trying to use painkillers to get through an injury.
Next month we will go further into the actual uses and strategies of psychedelic therapy, but hopefully this month has given a clearer outline of how both the potential as well as the perception of these controversial substances has come to the place which we see now.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY PART II
We will FINISH our Dirt From The Roots Series next month when we go over the ways that modern psychedelic therapy may be utilized as well as how and when that may become accessible to you! Following these 24 segments, I will be starting be a new series called The Rejection Protection Club which will focus more heavily on neurodivergence.
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