Can Science Validate the Psychedelic Experience?
written by Charles Hayes
pubished in Tikkun Magazine, in the March/April 2007 issue.
A portal to heaven opened up last summer when a study by a psychiatric team at preeminent Johns Hopkins School of Medicine revealed that psilocybin, the all-natural ingredient that packs the magic in magic mushrooms, can “occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”
Published in Psychopharmacology, the results of the double-blind study led by psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths were blindingly persuasive and unambiguous. A whopping 79 percent of the thirty mentally healthy, well-educated, hallucinogen-naïve, religiously or spiritually active adult volunteers, reported that their psilocybin sessions were one of the five most important events of their lives, right up there with the birth of their first child. Thirty percent said it was the single most significant event ever. What’s more, after two months, most reported lasting positive effects on their sense of well-being and life outlook—confirmed by significant others.
While some reported experiencing strong anxiety and a few would decline to repeat the experiment, the potent breadth of the psychedelic’s positive effect on the majority constitutes a home run on almost anyone’s scorecard. In a society that fancies itself foremost as faithful, an encounter with divinity would seem to have optimal value. We’re not talking about a nice buzz or an amelioration of the jitters; we’re talking godhead, unitive ecstasis.
Granted, the sovereign, enlightened individual doesn’t really need science to validate what he intuitively—or experientially – already knows. In that sense, scoffed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, the Griffiths findings can be tossed onto “the pile of the science of the No Duh.” One might well ask, “Since when is science equipped to quantify spirituality, anyway?” Doesn’t more flow out of an entheogen-induced devekut—Kabbalist mystic union with God—than can possibly be caught in the clinical chalice? To tend The Garden and ingest its ennobling fruit, do we really need to wait idly for an approving nod from secular authority, be it Big Brother Science or his more imposing sibling, Government?
The Hopkins results highlight the struggle between our culture’s twin idolatries, science and religion, both of which render themselves incomplete and exclusionary by their certitude. “Science without religion is lame,” Einstein observed, and “religion without science is blind.” But there’s good news: the science applied by the new psychedelic researchers at Hopkins and elsewhere is both more rigorous and more humane – even capable, in fact, of working in league with religion. The mystical models that arise will deliver unprecedented insight into the mysterium tremendum and the subjective phenomena of the religious experience.
William Richards, the Hopkins study’s chief monitor and a veteran of LSD research for treating the terminally ill at Spring Grove Hospital, Maryland some two generations ago, asserts that the study’s protocol and psychometric instruments are far ahead of where they were back in the golden age of psychedelic research, an appraisal echoed by notable physicians, including former National Institute on Drug Abuse director Charles Schuster and Herbert Kleber, deputy director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy under the first President Bush.
“It was as good a job as science can do today,” Richards says. “It almost makes me believe more in science than I did before.” The very first session, decades after his last work in the field, was profoundly mystical for him. “Just to be able to do it…. I felt awe and privilege myself.” Richards believes we’re finally in the “early dawn of psychology’s recognition and understanding of the spiritual experience.”
The prime mover behind all this progressive science is Robert Jesse, a former vice president of Oracle for whom life-changing entheogenic events inspired him to found the Council for Spiritual Practices (www.csp.org) in 1994 to develop “approaches to primary religious experience.” Working stealthily under the media radar, Jesse navigated the bureaucracy and moved the study to fruition, a strategy that kept it from being blackballed. Jesse once told me his aim isn’t to legalize psychedelics but to demonstrate their value. Mission accomplished at Johns Hopkins.
Bolstering the new science with the requisite judiciary buttress for the pursuit of spirituality through chemistry is yet another ray of light that pierces our Drug War benightedness. Early last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the Bush administration’s attempt to block the ingestion of the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew ayahuasca by a branch of União do Vegetal (UDV), a Brazilian religious order that insists the hoasca tea brings members closer to God. In the opinion written by new Chief Justice John Roberts, the court affirmed that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the church’s taste in tea. Sounding a distinct note for reason, he observed that federal law already allows peyote use by Native Americans, and that Congress ought to be “striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests.” And there’s an ecclesiastical catch: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals defended the UDV’s case for religious freedom, prompting psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor Charles Grob, an expert witness at the hearing, to notice that “religious rights can apparently trump the Drug War.”
There’s a real movement afoot. The field of psychedelic research is opening up, blossoming worldwide. The landmark study of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder victims unresponsive to other treatment, launched at the University of South Carolina in 2004, has been showing “tremendous results,” according to Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (www.maps.org), its sponsor. Privy to the extant data, Doblin noted that a telltale sign that subjects in the double-blind study had received MDMA rather than the placebo was their query of the monitor “And how are you doing?” once the drug kicked in.
A similar MAPS-funded study will begin soon in Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Health had been waiting for U.S. federal approval for the South Carolina study before launching its own MDMA work, to treat casualties of war and terrorism, under the direction of former IDF chief psychiatrist Moshe Kotler. The final condition, now satisfied, was express written support by the Israeli Anti-Drug Authority. Comparable MAPS-sponsored MDMA studies in Switzerland and Spain await approval.
MAPS is also hoping to start research at Harvard into LSD and psilocybin as treatments for cluster headaches, a horrifically painful affliction thus far resistant to lasting relief. A Neurology article by prospective monitors Andrew Sewell and John Halpern reports strong anecdotal evidence that unauthorized use of either of the two drugs—even in sub-psychoactive doses—as halted both shorter episodes and months-long cycles of these heada
Arising from the supplications of an underground population of law-breaking self-medicators, this research proposal demonstrates the moral authority of grassroots, people-driven science and how an overlooked, even factious interest group (www.clusterbusters.org) can force action and keep science honest.
“The psychedelic renaissance will have really begun in earnest and completely when we have LSD underway for both physiological and psychotherapeutic studies, particularly the latter,” says Doblin, who expects imminent approval for a MAPS-funded Swiss study of the psychotherapeutic use of LSD to ease anxiety in cancer patients. Still other psychedelic studies are in the pipeline, at different stages of the bureaucratic maze, including psilocybin research at NYU, and a not yet publicized LSD study to investigate brain function.
Psychedelic therapy has shown enormous potential to decouple minds from various kinds of captivity. Ketamine has been used successfully In St. Petersburg, Russia, to separate heroin addicts from their abusive habits. At the Iboga Therapy House (www.ibogatherapyhouse.net) in Vancouver, Canada, MAPS will conduct an investigation of ibogaine, a trance-inducing African tree bark, as a treatment for opiate dependence. Acute relief of obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms, after treatment with psilocybin, is described in a Journal of Clinical Psychiatry report on a University of Arizona, Tucson, study funded by MAPS and the Heffter Research Institute (www.hefter.org).
The case for treating substance abuse with psychedelic therapy dates back to the first studies fifty years ago, asserts Grob, Heffter’s director of clinical research and chief of child psychiatry at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. “The best therapeutic outcomes are with patients who have transpersonal experiences. In these patients you’ll see the most significant reduction of anxiety and the most sustained improvement.”
Getting religion has its health benefits. As William James once observed, “Religiomania is the best cure for dipsomania [alcoholism].” It was one such breakthrough in a legal LSD session in the 1950s that inspired Alcoholics Anonymous founder William Wilson to propose (unsuccessfully) to AA’s board that it use psychedelic therapy to help alcoholics break their bondage to the bottle.
Ponder for a moment the awesome power behind a force so strong that it can tear asunder a drug addict from his slave master, an obsessive compulsive from her involuntary rituals and ideation, and the searing vise of pain from a cluster headache sufferer. Yet psychedelics may also play a gentler role, in family or marital counseling.
The 2005 comedy When Do We Eat? (My Big Fat Jewish Seder) starring Michael Lerner (alas, not TIKKUN’S) and Jack Klugman, depicts what it might be like for the patriarch of a dysfunctional family to undergo an introspective trip on LSD-laced Ecstasy while presiding over the Passover ceremony. Dosed by his dopester son, Lerner is struck by a series of lustrous revelations that lead the family to catharsis and communal forgiveness. The final scene’s implication that a drug needn’t play such a role might be a cop-out, but it doesn’t nullify the fact that psychoactive substances have long held a revered place in religious ceremonies.
While not as rending as addiction busting, such religious communions are hardly trivial. Says Grob, who did biomedical psychiatric research into community ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon, “The intensive moral inventory of a night on ayahuasca is like the longest Yom Kippur you could ever imagine.” Grob places the family in a central supportive role in psychedelic therapy. His current study, using psilocybin to treat the anxiety of terminally ill cancer patients (beginning each session with a Native American-inflected ritual calling on the spirits of the four cardinal directions) has yielded highly positive results. He recalls how one sobbing subject (the late Pamela Sakuda) underwent a bout of profound empathy for her husband, soon to lose her. The reunion of the two at the end of the session brought tears to all present. Having treated seven of the twelve in the study design, Grob still needs five more volunteers (www.canceranxietystudy.org).
Some of us require a little nudge to take the leap toward faith. Religion scholar Huston Smith, a self-confessed “flat-footed mystic” who needed entheogens to connect with God, concedes, “religion is not accessible to everyone.” The so-called scandal of particularity, the alleged exclusion of the “infidel” from God’s embrace, is certainly at work in the socio-cultural realm of competing religions, but it also has genetic implications. Some of us are just better wired physiologically, or better situated environmentally (recall the role of set and setting). Select psychoactive agents could be an equalizer, enabling otherwise mystically barren subjects to undergo a lush transpersonal voyage of discovery.
The new science of neurotheology invites us to ponder the biochemistry of religion and its evolutionary role as a source of meaning and structure in the face of impending death. According to the Time cover story “The God Gene,” scientists have pinpointed a variation on a single gene that produces the monoamines that regulate mood, the presence of which determined how well volunteers scored on a self-transcendence test. Neither the variation nor the gene is the sine qua non for a spiritual life, of course, but the finding demonstrates both the value of science in detecting spirit-specific loci in the human biosphere—and the slippery slope of materialist/determinist interpretations of such findings.
So then, how do we construct a science devoted to human need and potential? Science is naturally driven by political culture. It’s only right that the tools of science are regulated by our (duly) elected officials. But what happens when the government censors its own scientists, and political or industrial cronyism overrules sound medical policy? Instead of basing climate change policy on the expert testimony of real climatologists, Congress turned to the defamatory fantasies of potboiler novelist Michael Crichton. Witness the FDA’s vacuous, contra-scientific pronouncement last year that cannabis has no medical value whatsoever. “Zilch, zero, nada,” sneered opioid gobbler Rush Limbaugh, impossibly rubbing it in.
Functionally speaking, science is only as good as its institutions and what makes it into print. When the science is rigorous, as Griffiths’ was, it helps build the case for sound medicine and public health policy, which can, if necessary, be hauled out and resurrected after its eclipse by unfavorable political leadership. No, we don’t need doctors or Congressmen to tell us that good can come of cannabis or psilocybin ingestion. But a reformed legal framework for the judicious use of psychedelics, as well as extensive scientific inquiry into how they work on the human psyche, would be welcome evolutionary tune-ups for our civilization.
The efflorescence of new psychedelic research is an emerging pattern of stars in the night sky of indiscriminate proscription. Once the dots are connected and reinforced by ongoing inquiry, we’ll be well on our way toward a wholesome science marked by rational integrity and a guiding heart that puts spirit and healing above profits and ideology.
Charles Hayes is the author of Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures (www.psychedelicadventures.com) which is available in the MAPS bookstore.
Back to MAPS Homepage Charles Hayes, auth
or of Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures (available in the MAPS store), has published a thought provoking article in Tikkun magazine (A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society) entitled, “Can Science Validate the Psychedelic Experience?”; Many of MAPS’ psychedelic research studies are mentioned.