Once dismissed as a hippie indulgence, drugs such as LSD are now at the front line of research into depression and anxiety. Could psychedelics actually make us better people?
Seventy-five years ago, in April 1943, the research chemist Albert Hofmann did something distinctly out of scientific character. Impelled by what he later called a “peculiar presentiment”, he resolved to take a second look at the 25th in a series of molecules derived from the ergot fungus, a drug he had discovered some years earlier and dismissed as of no scientific interest. As he synthesised it for the second time, it made contact with his skin, giving rise to an unprecedented experience: a “stream of fantastic pictures [and] extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colours”. Five days later, on 19 April, he decided to test the chemical on himself under controlled conditions, thus becoming the first person in history knowingly to embark on an acid trip.
Intermittently ever since, psychonauts and countercultural enthusiasts have celebrated 19 April as “Bicycle Day”, in recognition of this Ground Zero of Western psychedelia. After cautiously ingesting a dose of LSD-25, Hofmann enlisted the help of a lab assistant and wobbled home on his bicycle, while his vision “wavered and distorted as though in a curved mirror”. Sprawled on the sofa, he underwent a “severe crisis” that, viewed through the telescope of 75 years of psychedelic experience, looks endearingly familiar: one in which demonic terrors, mystical encounters and loss of ego alternated with fantastic imagery, synaesthetic perception and a desire to drink “more than two litres” of the milk provided by a neighbour.
This year, however, those celebrating Bicycle Day did so against a new background. After decades in the shadow of the 1960s counterculture, psychedelic drugs have emerged once again into the light of scientific orthodoxy. Researchers at major universities – Johns Hopkins in the US, Imperial College in London – have, over the past 20 years, been conducting experiments at growing scale to assess the effects of substances such as LSD, MDMA and psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms. Their results suggest that these powerful molecules, long stigmatised as drugs of self-gratification or abuse, may instead be miracle treatments for the most intractable disorders of our time: depression, isolation, addiction and post-traumatic stress.
Increasingly, too, psychedelics are getting good PR to back up their good science. In A Really Good Day, published last year, the novelist Ayelet Waldman described her period of microdosing LSD to self-medicate for anxiety and bipolar disorder. After a month of regular, tiny doses, provided by a psychedelic well-wisher who code-named himself Lewis Carroll, she reported a transformation in attitude and sense, feeling less worry, more love for and security about her family, and a calm optimism about her work.
In his recent book How to Change Your Mind, the writer and activist Michael Pollan explains the history of psychedelic drug use and explores the contemporary scientific consensus. He also describes his own experiences with hallucinogenic chemicals, among them mushrooms, ayahuasca, LSD and a fearsome DMT preparation derived from a poisonous toad.
Pollan’s book charts its author’s journey from cautious scepticism to the realisation that “the mind is vaster, and the world ever so much more alive, than I knew”. But it also points to a fascinating tension at the heart of the psychedelics field.
Once the province of shamans and hippies, psychedelics are now a bustling frontier town, where treatment-focused scientists and sharp-eyed capitalists jostle and collaborate – sometimes in the same person – with those who believe in the mystical powers of the drugs to transform the self, change society and remake the world. For anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of this dichotomy, there are few better places to be than Breaking Convention, a conference on “psychedelic consciousness” that takes place in London. Last year, in the heat of July, I watched as the austere Georgian buildings of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich broke out in colour and activity, thronged with representatives of what the event organiser, the psychiatrist Ben Sessa, proudly called the “psychedelic renaissance”.
Couples in sarongs and floaty dresses juggled poi balls on the lawn. Dreadlocked twenty-somethings in eye-and-pyramid T-shirts compared notes on LSD microdosing. An intense grey-haired woman circulated with a stack of butterfly-embossed business cards advertising “ayamorphosis” classes: meditative experiences that incorporate ayahuasca, a South American hallucinogenic brew.
Yet it was an error, I soon realised, to think of Breaking Convention as simply a gathering of freaks. Inside the college, a succession of medics, researchers and psychiatric professionals were speaking intently, and to rapt audiences, about research that aimed at no less dignified a goal than changing the world.
Rick Doblin, head of the non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies – a stocky, bearish man with a disarming grin – spoke about his 30-year mission to schedule MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (the project’s final stage of clinical trials begins later this year). Robin Carhart-Harris, a slim neuroscientist in his thirties who leads psychedelic research at Imperial, discussed brain-imaging studies that suggested these drugs could “shake the snowglobe” of the mind, permitting new approaches to ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour. Perhaps, too, their capacity to reduce activity in the parts of the brain that supervise the ego and the borders of the self could account for other symptoms of psychedelic trips: egolessness, feelings of mystical union, the sense of becoming one with everything.
Such dedication and rigour were striking, but at Breaking Convention one was often reminded that they were only part of the picture. I walked out of one briefing, in which Sessa pleaded with journalists to write about cutting-edge science rather than file another article on hippies and patchouli, and found myself faced with a poster depicting the weirdest of acid visions: the goddess Kali against a boiling psychedelic sky, with ranks of chained men walking gloomily into her vagina.
As the comic and serious aspects of the conference fought within me, I was reminded of a quotation by the late ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna: “Part of what psychedelics do,” he said, “is that they decondition you from cultural values. This is what makes it such a political hot potato.” The psychedelics field is still moulding its own cultural context, in which scientific empiricism and swoony mysticism can – and perhaps must – coexist.
One person with decades of experience of this cognitive inclusiveness is William A Richards, a psychologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, whose career holds a mirror up to 50 years of psychedelic research. With a swoosh of white hair and a snowy goatee, “Bill” walked in shirtsleeves among the Breaking Convention crowds, with the serene smile of a 78-year-old bodhisattva. He likes to begin convention talks with a cheerful “namaste”, his preferred expression for “saluting the divine within you”. And when I caught up with him some months later, over Skype from his office, his ready laughter and compassionate enthusiasm lit up my computer screen. I wondered if anyone I’d ever interviewed had talked about their work with such delight.
Richards’s first experience of psilocybin came in 1963, when, as a 23-year-old graduate student, he was given a shot of it in a basement lab at the University of Göttingen in Germany, and left by himself to evaluate the effects. “When I first received it,” he told me, chuckling, “I had never heard the word psychedelic.”
The laxity of the set-up would horrify many scientists today, who stress that psychedelics should be taken under medical or therapeutic supervision. At the time, however, long before the Sixties fashion for alternative consciousness, labs still circulated them freely to scientists and psychologists, and there was no stigma attached to their use or study. “It was a perfectly rational thing for a professor to give LSD or psilocybin to a graduate student,” Richards said, “especially if they wrote up a good report. I was a very straight, serious-minded sort of kid.” He laughed, suddenly and uproariously. “I think I still am, to some extent.”
His own response was instant and profound. In his 2015 book, Sacred Knowledge, he describes a mystical experience to which “awe, glory and gratitude were the only words that seemed relevant”. It shaped his career and, I suspect, his personality; unlike some of his colleagues in the field, who painstakingly avoid emotive vocabulary and confine themselves to discussing therapeutic effects, Richards is unapologetic about his belief that the secret of psychedelics is to induce “transcendental, what we call mystical experiences”. This puts him on one side of an emerging divide in psychedelics therapy: the side that sees the ideal place of these drugs in society not just as medicines for the sick, but as spiritual and philosophical tools for the healthy as well.
Bill Richards co-founded a psychedelics research programme at Johns Hopkins University. Photo: Mike Morgan
Richards ran experiments with psilocybin throughout the Sixties and Seventies, as the social context changed around him. The rogue psychologist Timothy Leary, fired from Harvard, set himself up as the spiritual leader of a psychedelic counterculture, putting in train a moral panic that led to Richard Nixon’s proclamation of a “war on drugs”. Richards was reluctant to talk about the Sixties counterculture – “I want to reframe psychedelics for the new generation, not just regurgitate the summer of love in San Francisco,” he said – but it’s clear that he has done a great deal of thinking about where everything went wrong last time.
“I’ve always believed in the incredible promise of these substances when used skilfully and responsibly by people who know what they’re doing,” he said carefully, “so seeing the psychedelic come to mean tie-dyed T-shirts and ponytails and draft resistance, or whatever, I always thought was an incomplete story.” His work with psilocybin stopped in 1977, when he became the last person in the US for more than 20 years to administer a legal dose of the drug. “It’s really not true that the government stopped research,” he said, “but they certainly didn’t encourage it. More and more, we couldn’t get funding, and you can’t ask your psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to work for free.”
There followed a period when he believed – not without reason – that psychedelic research “might not come alive again in my lifetime”. “I published some articles,” he said. “I put energy into private practice and teaching, played my piano, raised my kids.” In 1999, however, he was approached by Bob Jesse, a software engineer and computer scientist who had set up the Council on Spiritual Practices to fund a resurgence in psychedelic research, and Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist with extensive experience in the study of mood-altering drugs. All were convinced that the study of psilocybin could help in the organisation’s goal of “making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people”.
Together, they designed a set of studies for the resumption of psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins University. “We wrote the protocol,” said Richards, with an edge of wonder still in his voice, “and through some series of miracles it got approved, and approved, and approved. And all of a sudden we were doing it. And now it’s 17 years later and we’re still going strong.”
Today, the Johns Hopkins team has reported some of the most striking results to date in the field of psychedelic science. Its research is wide-ranging – one experiment in progress is giving psilocybin to rabbis, imams and priests, another is soliciting reports from anyone who feels they’ve contacted an entity while on DMT – but there is little arguing with the significance of studying psychedelics. The best-known research has concentrated on patients with life-threatening cancer and severe depression: people suffering from the sense, in the words of one, that they were facing a losing battle and “would really like not to be depressed the rest of my life”.
In the most famous experiment, the results of which were published in 2016, 51 such patients were given psilocybin and encouraged to experience it in the company of two therapists. They did so in rooms carefully styled as comforting environments – low lights, calming paintings – and following a set of “flight instructions” drafted by Richards. These included the advice to confront challenging visions and ask them, “What are you doing in my mind? Is there something you can teach me?” and to dive into nausea or terror “as though into a swimming pool”. They also listened to a playlist that Richards compiled, which you can find, perhaps surprisingly, on Spotify: it runs from Vivaldi, Arvo Pärt and Brahms’s German Requiem to Enya, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and the Gypsy Kings.
The results were revelatory, for patients and doctors alike. Recounting his experience, the Hopkins biophysicist Richard Cone, who also took part, described the sense that “everything around us is animate. Humans are not separate from nature. And whatever happens to my bodily parts, they will go back into nature too, they will be recycled.” From a scientific perspective, the data was astonishing. Eighty per cent of the patients reported significant decreases in depression and anxiety, results that remained the same six months later.
These apparently lasting effects confirmed a point that Richards had been making since his own first experience with the drug in Germany. “People may only receive the drug once and experience its effect for 4-6 hours,” he told me, “but the benefit comes from the memory of that experience and how it changes your view of yourself, other people and the world.” Instead of a continuous course of drugs “to change the biochemical soup in your brain somehow”, psychedelic experience holds out the possibility of a single and lasting intervention. “It’s a new concept in psychiatric thinking.”
As the Hopkins team moves forward – designing, among other things, the studies that will permit the stage-three clinical testing of psilocybin on treatment-resistant depression – Richards is aware that the battle for the public mind is still being fought. Although scientific consensus is shifting to the idea that these non-addictive drugs solve more mental health problems than they cause, decades of prohibition, media scares and horror stories about “bad trips” may take longer to wipe away. “A lot of the people who are wary of psychedelics have good reason,” Richards told me. “Some of them have had bad experiences, or they’ve had relatives who got into drug abuse that maybe included psychedelics, and they’re justifiably concerned.” He suggested the experience might be compared to downhill skiing. “It’s not for everyone, and there are some who shouldn’t do it. If you have a heart condition and you want to go skiing, your physician may advise against it. But you may still decide to do it.”
Even so, Richards looks hopefully to a future in which the insights of these drugs are more widely available. “What would life be like,” he asked, “if we had a very effective treatment for addictions, depressions and post-traumatic stress? What would those people be like? Would they care more about the environment? Would they be more tolerant of diversity? Would there be more of a sense of creativity and peacefulness in the population as a whole?”
Ask enthusiasts for the new psychedelic science – whether the audiences at Breaking Convention or converts such as Michael Pollan – and the answer might well be yes. But most in the field realise that these drugs, with their complex past and their suggestions of numinous and transformational potential, will only make converts if their mystical claims can be quantified with hard science and visible results. The next revolution in consciousness, if there is one, must be the slow turning of a wheel. “I want to say to the world: let’s do it right this time,” Richards told me, smiling. “Let’s keep level heads.”