The Trippy Science of Psychedelic Studies


IfIf you’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.

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