James Fadiman: Psychedelic Research and Applications

CMC Forum
Manav Kohli

Originally appearing here.

Dr. James Fadiman is most famous for his research conducted on the therapeutic and spiritual aspects of psychedelic drugs. In 1974 he co-founded the Institute for Transpersonal Pyschology, and has since continued to explore potential medical and creative uses of psychedelic drugs. In his most recent book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys (2011), he provides insight into safe and correct uses of psychedelic drugs. The book was inspired by his unique knowledge of psychedelic experiences and his desire to explain beneficial uses of those substances. He received his B.A. from Harvard University in Social Relations in 1960, and his M.A. and Ph.D from Stanford University in Psychology in 1962 and 1965, respectively.

To preface this article, I would like to draw attention to Dr. Fadiman’s editor’s note for an article he published in November 2011’s Institute of Noetic Sciences Journal, The Promise of Psychedelic Research:

“This article is neither an endorsement of illegal use nor an advocacy for legalization, but a recognition that these drugs are in the mainstream and having a variety of impacts on users, positive as well as negative, and merit more serious investigation.”

Dr. Fadiman’s most recent book and research are both expressions of this endeavor, and should not be confused with promoting the use of psychedelic drugs “just for fun.” He believes in the natural and creative aspects of the drugs, but even describes himself as a right-leaning voice within a leftist culture ” that is, he believes in the proper uses of psychedelic drugs. Exploring the human mind and our spiritual tendencies is a very exciting prospect, and psychedelic drugs can provide researchers with new and creative insights into these fields. Furthermore, Fadiman finds that the extent of therapeutic uses of those substances are very exciting, and extremely surprising.

For example, while MDMA (Ecstasy) has recently received increasing media attention for its association with rave culture and as an extremely dangerous drug, research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has shown that it can be effective in significantly reducing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In an interview with the Sane Society, Dr. Fadiman describes how in MDMA Assisted Therapy tests, approximately 80% of patients with PTSD enough symptoms of the syndrome after the treatment that they didn’t qualify as having it anymore.

Before attending Dr. Fadiman’s talk at the Athenaeum, the Forum had the chance to meet with him and speak with him about his research. One of the most fascinating parts of Dr. Fadiman’s early research was the application of LSD in creative problem solving. Knowing that people were able to overcome psycho-thereapeutic problems using the substance, Dr. Fadiman teamed up with Stanford University Electrical Engineering Professor Willis Harman to channel psychedelic creativity on complex mathematical and scientific problems. Most importantly, they channeled the researchers focus by working with successful scientists who had repeatedly failed in solving a problem for at least a few months. Although the researchers found that they were unable to do many calculations, they were extremely successful in visualizing the problems. In his words, “instead of seeing set theory, they would see sets.”

Interestingly, when we asked Dr. Fadiman about the most exciting results he found while working with psychedelics, he explained that the most meaningful ones were small changes in patients. While there were no amazing breakthroughs, he recounted that the most significant results came in the form of changes in the patients’ characters. After treatment with LSD, he found that patients were more stable, sociable, and on the whole “nicer people.”

Some believe drugs can be an avoidance tactic to facing one’s problems fully, while Dr. Fadiman explained the difference in gaining a spiritual experience through meditation and reflection versus the use of psychedelic drugs. He likened the question to climbing Mt. Everest: Either you can prepare for years, train with a team, and challenge yourself greatly in reaching the top, or you can simply take a helicopter trip to the top. Either way, you get to see the view from the peak and experience coming back into reality. While many would argue that climbing the mountain is more rewarding, very few people have the time or the energy to do so. For the average person that can’t make that commitment, he suggested that psychedelics may be a powerful tool for reaching a deep and transformative spiritual awareness.

In between questions the conversation also trailed into topics not covered in Fadiman’s research ” we covered topics ranging from the different spiritual nature of various psychedelics to the culture behind their use in music festivals. However, the most profound point was the personal understanding to be gained from spritual experiences. Whether that is through meditation or a focused and guided psychedelic experience, Dr. Fadiman discussed at length how people can grow and develop a higher regard for nature through introspection.

Fadiman’s Athenaeum presentation focused more on clinical uses of psychedelics. He began by pointing out that we are in a renaissance of psychedelic research, for we are rediscovering ancient cultural uses while simultaneously exploring the purpose of why plants naturally produce these substances. Dr. Fadiman then dove into psychedelic therapeutic research, citing instances in which LSD allowed hospice care patients to come to terms with their conditions while helping others stop cycles of cluster headaches. He later referenced the use of the drug psilocybin to reduce social anxiety and to help smokers lose their addiction.

Near the end of his talk he took a brief turn towards how experiences with psychedelics may change how people interact with their environment. For example, he suggested that psychedelic experiences can develop a mindset in which one changes from living as an independent species to living within a habitat.

Despite presenting on possibly productive uses of psychedelics, student questions almost entirely focused on either the danger of psychedelics (i.e. can they be a slippery slope into more dangerous drugs) and their usage (what was his favorite psychedelic, what was his favorite place he did them in, etc.). The questions reflected that many students absorbed very little of the spiritual and personal development prospects of psychedelics. Perhaps it was because Dr. Fadiman’s talk focused less on them, or that the students who fully booked his talk in a single hour were more excited by the thrill of drugs. While the spiritual aspect of psychedelics was an integral part of how Dr. Fadiman approved their usage during our interview, I am unsure how well that sentiment was conveyed during his presentation. While the use of psychedelic substances is an interesting topic to discuss, the question of spirituality, self-exploration, and our relation to the environment around us is an even more pressing one.
CMC Forum interviews psychedelic researcher James Fadiman, Ph.D., about exciting results from his career studying psychedelics. They investigate the promising results from research into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD, and the creative insights that psychedelic research could provide for scientists and doctors to advance their fields of study.