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After I Signed up for one, I started to dig into their data. That’s when things got weird.
I’ve never been the kind of person to gush about mind-altering drugs. In fact, it takes only the slightest whiff of woo-woo to send me rolling my eyes — hard, with gleeful abandon. But when I tell people I’ll be taking a not-insignificant dose of psychedelics as part of a research study to treat depression, no shock ensues.
We live in a psychedelic renaissance where tripping for divine revelation or high productivity is fast becoming a trend. But what really interests me is the scientists — in particular, those who talk about treating depression and dissolving the ego, all in the same breath.
The research team I’ve picked at Imperial College London (ICL) is one of a few exploring the potential for psychedelics to treat intractable mental illnesses. The results of their work so far have been impressive. For instance, in a 2016 study, all 12 of the volunteers (all of whom struggled with treatment-resistant depression) saw relief. Eight were depression-free after just one week, five of those stayed in remission, and two others sustained a significant reduction in symptoms at the three-month follow-up. Other psychedelic studies have shown similar promise in helping people with alcohol addiction, smoking, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and cancer-related anxiety — and all it often takes is a single hit of the drug.
While participating in the study, I’ll make seven visits to the lab. Each will be between two and eight hours long and I’ll undergo two MRI scans, 90 minutes each. By the end of the study, I’ll have taken two doses of psilocybin (either high or low), the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and six weeks of pills — placebos or antidepressants (escitalopram) — in between.
For some reason, I find myself completely untroubled by the high substance dose — 25mg, enough to produce a full-blown, out-of-control, out-of-body experience for someone of my weight. What bothers me more is the idea of being trapped for 90 minutes inside the noisy sarcophagus of the MRI machine. Not because of claustrophobia, mind you, but because of boredom. This is the thing I’ll later look back on and regret the most: that careless shrug, the almost leap-of-faith decision to turn my psyche over to the scientists and their drugs.
Ifyou’re a child of the ’80s, the recent comeback of psychedelics may appear surprising. I didn’t know that in the 1950s and ’60s, classic psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline enjoyed great popularity among a wide variety of researchers and health professionals. During this period, scientists published over 1,000 papers and held six international conferences on LSD; some 40,000 people were treated with the drug. Psychotherapists gave it to clients to surface repressed material; psychiatrists used it to invoke and study psychotic symptoms in their patients.
Eventually, as psychedelics spread to the general public and gained rapid adoption among the hippie movement, they became increasingly politicized. Florid, often exaggerated stories of abuse appeared in the media spawning fears and criticism, and the government cracked down on the drugs. By the early 1970s, the research had dried up; the party was over.
After decades of hiatus, the pendulum again began to swing in the ’90s, as more rigorous studies uncovered new evidence about the medical potential of psychedelics. Over the past 15 years, this evidence has only grown in size and promise. For example, a 2016 study of cancer patientswith anxiety and depression found that five weeks after taking a high psilocybin dose, 92% of subjects showed a reduction in their depressive symptoms by at least 50% and 60% of the subjects were nearly depression-free. (Remarkably, the number of depression-free subjects even rose slightly after six months.) Other psilocybin studies have reached similarly compelling outcomes.
In one, 15 heavy, chronic tobacco smokers received up to three moderate to high doses of the drug. In six months, 80% of participants were abstinent — an impressive number if you compare it to the less than 35% quit rate attributed to nicotine replacement therapies and other pharmacological interventions. In the context of such rapid and enduring positive changes, the mounting public interest in mind-altering drugs comes as no surprise.
Some scientists, however, are cautious of the hype. What we have now, they say, is only a handful of small, preliminary studies showing psychedelics to be well tolerated, nonaddictive, and safe to use in a therapeutic setting. We can’t yet draw definitive conclusions about the drugs’ clinical efficacy or practical use. Most existing studies still lack the placebo controls, too, plus the blinding procedures and adequate sample sizes that would be expected from trials of new drugs to ensure that the observed effects are not a fluke.
As far as I can tell from their testimonies, posttrial participants spend less time holed up in front of the TV and more time outdoors… They speak of being “saturated in the majesty of existence.”
For this reason, Guy Goodwin at the psychiatry department of the University of Oxford sums up his position on psychedelics as “upbeat pessimism.” Somewhat more cheerfully, Robin Carhart-Harris, who heads ICL’s Psychedelic Research Group (and my study), describes his own stance as “tempered optimism.”
I’m optimistic, like Carhart-Harris. And for a while, my optimism is through the roof. I learn that subjects of psychedelic studies on mental health don’t simply feel better and do better after the treatment — they also seem to become better humans. Pouring over follow-up interviews with participants, I can’t help but wonder: Are these people for real?
As far as I can tell from their testimonies, posttrial participants spend less time holed up in front of the TV and more time outdoors. They don’t waste precious energy on petty fights and they don’t sweat the small stuff. They’ve let go of resentment, released past hurt, and forgiven old grudges. They’ve owned their vulnerability, reconnected with their values, and transformed their relationships. They speak of being “saturated in the majesty of existence.” And though the language of these reports makes me cringe, I have no real reason to doubt their truthfulness, or to brush their comments off as the vacuous babble of pseudo-enlightened spiritual gurus.
Except. There’s a small detail I stumble upon in the smokers’ study. It’s barely visible under reams of ecstatic accounts and I nearly miss it: As it turns out, five of the 12 participants that agreed to be interviewed “reported not wanting to experience psilocybin again.” A sixth one had mixed feelings.
One of the ICL researchers wants to assess my suitability as a subject. Her voice has the strained breeziness of someone caught in an awkward situation and in my compulsion to comfort her, I worry that I’m not coming across as properly distressed. At the end of the call, I ask about something that’s been eating at me ever since a friend shared his harrowing mushroom experiment: the odds of having a bad trip. There’s no such thing, the researcher tells me.
That’s not to say the psychedelic experience is easy or wholly euphoric. In fact, a quarter to over half of participants report negative emotions during a trip , like sadness, fear, despair, confusion, and even paranoia. Usually, though, these feelings pass quickly. And many participants and researchers believe a degree of struggle bears therapeutic benefits. In one survey of nearly 2,000 people, subjects explained their bad trip. Over half said it was among the most difficult experiences in their lives, yet a whopping 84% still felt their trip had helped them.
In the 1950s, psychedelics were often used as mind-manifesting agents. For the Freudian psychiatrists at the time, the drugs seemed to reveal the inner workings of the subconscious. Patients ingested small doses to help them retrieve suppressed memories and feelings, which could then be worked out in therapy. In modern clinical trials, subjects typically confront their demons on a single, emotionally intense trip (though the procedure is sometimes repeated once or twice). Alexander Belser, a founding member of the psychedelic research program at New York University who currently works at Yale, talks about “an arc of experience or a necessary sequence” that resembles the rising action, climax, and resolution of the hero’s journey in stories. The twist of the psychedelic trip is that in order to triumph, the hero must actually surrender. Surrendering to struggle in the drug-altered state has emerged as key to attaining emotional catharsis and resolving your inner conflicts.
In one study, subjects were instructed to “trust, let go, and be open.” This mantra comes in handy when hard emotions bubble up and the instinct to resist them begins to take over. Because it’s this resistance to uncomfortable feelings, rather than the feelings themselves, that’s believed to turn a trip bad.