But over the past decade, some scientists have begun to challenge that conclusion. Far from being harmful, they found, hallucinogens can help sick people: They helped alcoholics drink less; terminal patients eased more gently into death. And it’s not just the infirm who are helped by the drugs. Psychedelics can make the healthy healthier, too.
On this subject, only a handful of peer-reviewed studies have been conducted; sample sizes are tiny. There’s still a great deal researchers don’t know. But early results suggest that, when used by people without a family history or risk of psychological problems, psychedelics can make us kinder, calmer and better at our jobs. They can help us solve problems more creatively and make us more open-minded and generous. Some experiments even suggest that a single dose can change our personalities forever.
Is it possible that a drug labeled as one of the most destructive and dangerous could make everyone’s lives better?
Americans have had a complicated history with psychedelics like LSD, magic mushrooms and peyote. In the 1950s, researchers began to investigate whether psychedelics could treat mental-health disorders and addiction. Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government funded 116 studies on the subject, affecting thousands of people.
At the same time, large numbers of Americans started using these drugs recreationally. As many as 2 million had dropped acid by 1970. Stories about “bad trips” and psychotic breaks emerged in the press. In one widely publicized incident, a 5-year-old accidentally took her uncle’s drug; people got scared. Meanwhile, soldiers were returning from Vietnam addicted to heroin; the country felt like it was locked in battle with illegal drug use. By 1968, President Richard Nixon had declared drugs “public enemy number one.” Congress banned all psychedelic use in 1970, which made research nearly impossible.
Then, in the early 2000s, a handful of scientists began looking into psychedelics as a way to relieve anxiety and addiction. (They were drawn to the drugs after reviewing the work of researchers from the 1950s and ’60s.) These experiments were successful. In one study, cancer patients were given psilocybin, a component of psychedelic mushrooms. Each patient was given one dose and then allowed to trip in a hospital room designed to look like a living room. Two medical professionals stayed close by.
Afterward, almost all of the participants experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression. Scientists checked in with the patients six months later; all reported that they still felt calmer and happier. Volunteer Gail Thomas told me that the treatment helped her overcome a deep sense of loneliness. “The main message from the trip was that we’re all connected,” she said. “We’re not alone.”
“The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding,” NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross told the New Yorker. “We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
Other researchers have tested the drug as a treatment for depression, addiction and other mental problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Remarkably, in each small trial, scientists saw incredible results.
In a 2014 smoking-cessation study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, 15 participants were given three doses of psilocybin under careful supervision by doctors. The participants were all heavy nicotine users, consuming about a pack a day for an average of 31 years. Six months later, 80 percent were cigarette-free — most smoking-cessation efforts are about 35 percent effective. In a 2015 alcoholism study, also peer-reviewed and published in Psychopharmacology, many of the 10 participants saw a significant decrease in drinking for at least nine months after one or two psilocybin experiences. In both studies, the psilocybin doses were coupled with therapy.
Here’s why scientists think it works: When someone takes a psychedelic, there is a decrease in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain’s “default mode network,” a group of brain structures found in the frontal and pre-frontal cortex. The default mode network is primarily responsible for our ego or sense of self; it “lights up” when we daydream or self-reflect.
When we trip, our default mode network slows down. With the ego out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object dissolve. These processes may be related to something called the “primary mystical experience,” a phenomena highly correlated with therapeutic outcomes. As Matthew Johnson, a principal investigator in Johns Hopkins’s psilocybin studies, explains, these experiences include a “transcendence of time and space,” a sense of unity and sacredness and a deeply felt positive mood.
Robin Carhart-Harris, a neuroscientist with Imperial College London, notes that the default mode network is responsible for a lot of our rigid, habitual thinking and obsessions. Psychedelics help relax the part of the brain that leads us to obsess, which makes us calmer. And they can help “loosen if not break” the entrenched physical circuits responsible for addictive behavior.
There’s also an increase in activity between different parts of the brain that don’t normally communicate — what scientists call “cross-talk.” That may be why we hallucinate while on psychedelics; the brain’s visual-processing centers are interacting in strange ways with the parts of the brain that control our beliefs and emotions.
Of course, it’s not just the mentally ill who need to feel less isolated and obsessive, more fulfilled and creative. Research has shown that healthy people also benefit from the brain shift that psychedelics provide. Taking the drug even one time can fundamentally reshape our lives, making us happier and kinder, more productive at work and more open-minded. These findings are one of the reasons I became a psychedelics advocate.
In one study (admittedly, one that didn’t follow today’s rigorous research parameters) conducted at Harvard in 1962, 10 divinity school students were given psilocybin just before a Good Friday service. Eight reported a mystical experience. In the late 1980s, researcher and psychedelics advocate Rick Doblin interviewed seven of the students who’d taken the drug. All said that experience had shaped their lives and work in profound ways. But Doblin also found that several subjects experienced acute anxiety during their experiences. One participant had to be dosed with a powerful antipsychotic after he became convinced that he’d been chosen to announce the arrival of the Messiah and ran from the chapel.
In 2006, Johns Hopkins researchers tested whether psychedelics induce a mystical experience in healthy people. Thirty-six volunteers were given either a hallucinogen or a placebo at one session. In the second session, the pills were reversed. Six months later, the study participants said they were “more sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, to have increased positive relationships, an increased need to serve others,” according to a lead researcher. The doctors interviewed participants’ family members, friends and colleagues as well; they all confirmed that the study participants had become nicer and more pleasant.
The positive changes seen in this study persisted for at least 14 months. A third of the participants in the Hopkins study rated their psilocybin session as the most spiritually significant experience of their lives, even more important than the birth of a child or the death of a parent.
The 2006 study was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. In that issue, several prominent drug researchers were invited to comment; all praised the finding and called for additional research. Columbia University professor Herbert Kleber wrote that he saw “major therapeutic possibilities.”
In a 2011 study, 18 healthy volunteers were given four doses of psilocybin. The vast majority of participants reported prolonged positive changes in attitude and mood, feelings that lasted for at least 14 months. In follow-up research, scientists determined that many of the volunteers from both studies had undergone a change in personality, something that is supposed to remain relatively fixed after 30. Participants had become more open-minded, tolerant and interested in fantasy and imagination.
“People have certain fears and rigid perspectives and ways of seeing the world that often limit what they can do,” said Katherine MacLean, who led the personality research at Johns Hopkins. “A lot of people I saw go through the study as healthy people wanted to make certain changes in their life. And psilocybin helped them make these changes.”
A recently published Imperial College London study seems to reinforce the Hopkins findings, although on a much more limited time scale. Twenty healthy volunteers were administered a relatively low dose of LSD. Two weeks later, they were asked to fill out personality assessments. The participants said they felt more optimistic, open-minded and intellectually curious.
Beyond the studies, there is a small community of people who are using LSD to self-medicate through micro-dosing, or consuming tiny portions of the drug. There’s no scientific rigor to their work. But in articles and on Internet message boards, these users claim to have experienced some success in using LSD to improve focus, concentration, memory and creativity. In James Fadiman’s “The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide,” regular acid users said small doses helped them work harder and smarter. Some Silicon Valley workers are taking the drug to increase their productivity.
Even famous Americans have linked their use of psychedelics to major creative breakthroughs. Steve Jobs famously said that taking LSD “was one of the most important things in my life.” The entrepreneur Tim Ferriss said that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” And the beloved and recently departed neuroscientist Oliver Sacks related LSD use to his ability to better empathize with his patients.
So far, about 500 people have participated in formal psilocybin experiments, and researchers have reported no serious side effects. But of course, these volunteers are self-selected, carefully screened and guided by therapists who are well-trained to manage episodes of fear and anxiety that can occur during a trip.
When psychedelics are used outside these tightly controlled settings, major problems can occur. These can come in the form of bad trips, which make users feel extremely anxious and depressed. Sometimes, people do dangerous things while under the influence. And hallucinogens can surface latent psychological problems, such as schizophrenia. Recreational use can occasionally result in terrifying flashbacks. (Though researchers have found that psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms are not addictive and far less dangerous than many legal drugs, including alcohol.)
That reality makes it hard for many scientists to imagine a future when psychedelics are used widely. They worry that it will be hard to control the drugs’ use. As Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse told the New Yorker, “The main concern we have . . . is that the public will walk away with the message that psilocybin is a safe drug.”
There are legal considerations, too. Researchers are in the process of asking the FDA to consider rescheduling the drug as a treatment for end-of-life anxiety, a long and complex process. Approval for broader use will likely take decades.
What, then, is the way forward?
Perhaps the studies that have been have done offer a path. Patients could be recommended for treatment by their doctors, screened for serious mental illness and certain heart conditions, prepped about what to expect and monitored by a medical professional (with whom they built a trusting relationship) over six to eight hours in case of anxiety and fear. The psychedelic experience should also be integrated into the participant’s life through some form of follow-up therapy. Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert and NYU professor, emphasizes the importance of containing the experience, both during the trip, for the purposes of safety, and afterward, “so it’s not merely a one-off mystical experience, but actually something you could build a life around.”
These drugs would have to be tightly regulated. They’re simply too powerful to be left to the free market. But that’s no reason for inaction. In the right setting, psychedelics can provide a lifetime of perspective in an afternoon. As writer and psychedelics advocate Aldous Huxley said: “The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less sure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.”