How do the current presentation and reception of psychedelic drugs reflect lessons learned from the backlash against these drugs in the 1960s? And what does this say about their future? In this week’s blog I describe some ways in which psychedelics and their effects are being mainstreamed and attaining political correctness through their biomedicalization. However, by this process, I see a potential risk in limiting our understanding and application of the full range their effects.

The media

In the current revival of interest in psychedelics, the media have up until now taken a balanced and positive approach to anything psychedelic. Stories about psychedelic art, music, and ayahuasca tourism assume a curious and questioning perspective, rather than regaling readers with psychedelic horror stories. When psychedelic tragedies occur, media coverage is negligible. The media have been especially enthusiastic about biomedical research. However, there is no guarantee of future good relations with the media. Undoubtedly, some of the generous media coverage is due to reporters and editors with prior positive experiences with psychedelics. However, the tone of any such stories could change overnight as a result of corporate decisions, based on political expediency and sales figures. This is especially likely if a particular psychedelic drug is believed to be associated with something terribly frightening: political, medical, or social.

If inordinately alarming psychedelic-related occurrences came to light, there would be little interest by the media to continue mainstreaming psychedelics. Doing so would not be as newsworthy as, say, covering something like the 1960s Manson murders or massive campus unrest—both cases where psychedelic drugs were implicated. Just look at the Robert F. Kennedy Senate hearings in 1966 that featured testimonies by the leading luminaries of American psychiatry, nearly all of whom stated their belief that careful clinical research with psychedelics was safe and beneficial. Such testimony was ignored by those who crafted and passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Preparing for the inevitable backlash before it occurs may be prudent. In general, the preventative employment of short hair, conservative clothes, and understatements go a long way in avoiding red flags and minimizing fodder for later attacks. On the other hand, shocking appearance; silly, unfounded, and self-aggrandizing statements and behaviors should be avoided. So far, this generation of researchers has kept to this regimen and no-one has come forward as dangerously self-serving or media-craving.

Objective data

Current research is restricting itself to data, meaning “analyzable numerical data,” encompassing both biological and subjective phenomena.

At the biological level, this is relatively straightforward. Administer the drug, measure biological responses, and correlate those responses with either acute immediate effects of the drug (i.e., the drug “intoxication”) or longer-term ones, such as personality or psychopathology changes. Most biological research now looks at brain function using a range of technologies. These include electroencephalography (EEG) which measures the electrical activity of the surface of the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) which examine metabolism in particular brain areas, magnetoencephalography (MEG) which examines fluctuations in the magnetic field of the brain, positron emission tomography (PET) which reveals the uptake and/or binding of various substances and/or the effects of such substances on brain metabolism. Such studies generate numerical values for any number of variables. Differences in values for these variables between the drug state and either the resting state or placebo are assumed to result from the drug. Ideally, these studies generate dose-response data where small doses of drug cause small responses, medium doses medium responses, and large doses large responses in the variables of interest.

Objectifying subjective effects

This is a more complex issue.

Current human research focuses nearly solely on scores on various rating scales or questionnaires. This is for several reasons. One is scientific. There were fewer relevant rating scales available to the first generation of researchers, who to a great degree relied on difficult-to-analyze narrative reports by research volunteers. In contrast, rating scales generate numerical data, or scores. Those numerical data can then be statistically correlated with the biological effects that one has determined as resulting from drug administration. For example, one might see an area or circuit in the brain become more or less active in a depressed patient in response to a psychedelic drug. Then one analyzes the correlation between scores on depression rating scales and brain imaging data to determine if there is a relationship between antidepressant effect and brain effects. Put somewhat inelegantly, this type of research establishes biological bases of rating scale scores.

Another reason is that one is able to limit or delimit the subjective phenomena, the subjective experiences resulting from taking a psychedelic drug. By deciding what to measure you are also deciding what not to measure. And by deciding what not to measure, it is easier to imply (and infer) that those non-measured phenomena do not exist. These decisions I believe are influenced by the biases of the investigator significantly more in the case of subjective reports than in that of brain physiology. In other words, it is easier to ignore, sidestep, or overlook subjective effects that you decide not to measure (or prefer not measuring) than it is to treat brain imaging data in this selective manner.

Subjective narratives of high-dose psychedelic drug experiences, with their religious, metaphysical, or otherwise “supernatural” or “paranormal” contents don’t fall within the usual boundaries of science. They usually are tread upon lightly, if not denied, in the interest of maintaining political correctness for, and a mainstream quality to, psychedelic studies.

I noticed this when presenting our DMT results at scientific meetings: almost no one asked what were the effects of DMT! And I was just as guilty of colluding in this regard. I recall with some embarrassment how I sidestepped Robert Forte’s asking me just that question during the Q & A after my talk at a Swiss conference in Lugano in 1994 celebrating “50 years of LSD.” I thought, “I can’t possibly describe what our volunteers have told me.” This is one of the reasons I wrote the first DMT book—The Spirit Molecule—in order to make more widely known, and in greater detail, just what those subjective effects were. However, I believe that I could only have written the book when I was no longer dependent on federal funding and permits for my livelihood.

While our DMT work utilized a psychological rating scale developed specifically for this project, the narrative reports obtained through intensive clinical interviewing provided a much fuller and comprehensive characterization of the DMT effect. Simply posting scores on various subscales of our questionnaire, while statistically useful, said very little about what actually went on in that person’s mind.

While I will discuss in some detail later, for now I will note that contemporary psychedelic-spirituality studies follow this general paradigm—objective data using rating scales and brain imaging. This research has utilized this model in two ways. One is to give psychedelics as catalysts or accelerants for spiritual growth in normal volunteers. The other is within a psychotherapeutic context; for example, in the treatment of depression, anxiety, or addiction. Here, researchers posit the necessity of a “spiritual experience” for a successful therapeutic outcome. In both cases, one obtains scores on rating scales measuring spiritual experience. Those with higher scores, both normals and patients, show a wide array of benefit in desired outcomes. And to the extent that particular “categories” of spiritual states can be correlated with functional brain changes, an appealing model emerges establishing the biological/objective “reality” of spiritual experience.

I am not implying that there is anything “wrong,” “untrue,” or otherwise disreputable in relying upon objective data within the biomedical setting for studying, understanding, and applying the effects of psychedelic drugs. It is sensible and prudent, and is generating much valuable data—theoretical and practical. For example, we are locating brain areas and function mediating states of consciousness caused by psychedelic drugs. We are also developing new effective therapies for intractable psychiatric/psychological conditions based on these data. However, it is similarly prudent, as well as intellectually honest and alive, to remain interested in what we are yet unable, or have not yet chosen, to measure.

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In my next blogs, I will describe other ways in which psychedelic drugs are being used and their effects understood in attempts to maintain a relatively mainstream status. These include administering manageable doses, manualizing set and setting, politically correct labeling of adverse effects, employing bottom-up explanatory models, and removing religion from religious experience. Stay tuned.

Questions, comments? Write me at rjstrassman@gmail.com

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