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Pushing Taboo: Exploring the Role of LSD in Transpersonal Psychology

Staring at the stars

By Diego Pinzon Rubiano

Introduction

“It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that psychedelics used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.“ – Stanislav Grof (Grof, 2008, p. 12)

The field of Transpersonal Psychology was founded in the late 1960’s as a response to the limited scope of psychology at the time, namely the behaviourist, psychoanalytic and humanistic views (Sotillos, 2010). The term transpersonal refers to that which transcends the individual or personal experience. The pioneers of this new field broadened the scope and considered non-ordinary states of consciousness as an important subject of study and research (Walsh, 1993). The term non-ordinary states is used to differentiate our everyday waking consciousness from any other state which we do not experience as often. For example, dreaming, being drunk on alcohol or feeling ecstatic joy while dancing are non-ordinary states of consciousness. Abraham Maslow, a pioneer of transpersonal psychology, placed great value on peak or transcendental experiences (Maslow, 1969). Peak experiences are characterized by an individual perceiving: (a) loss of the sense of time and space, (b) freedom from inner conflicts, (c) loss of fear and inhibition, (d) feelings of oneness with the universe, and (e) feelings of ultimate happiness and fulfilment (Maslow, 1968). These experiences were reported by exceptionally healthy individuals and are identical to those of religious people who experienced communion with God or revelation (Grof, 2009; Maslow, 1969).  As such, these experiences fall within the realm of the transpersonal and non-ordinary.

One of the most effective means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness and peak experiences is through the ingestion of psychedelic substances (Grof, 2008). This essay explores the role of the controversial substance Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in Transpersonal Psychology and psychotherapy. It provides a brief history of the substance and presents an overview of the work of transpersonal researcher Stanislav Grof. Additionally, recent research on psychedelics is reviewed. To finalize, it integrates my personal experience as a transpersonal seeker into the benefits and potentials of this substance through a short story.

Introducing LSD

The term psychedelic literally means mind manifesting. That is to say, psychedelic substances reveal contents of the mind. LSD is classified as a psychedelic substance and is perhaps the most widely studied. Other substances include: (a) psilocybin, the psychoactive component in some species of mushrooms; (b) mescaline, the psychoactive component in the San Pedro cactus; and (c) dimethyltryptamine, one of the psychoactive components in the indigenous South American plant-based concoction Ayahuasca.

LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann (Hofmann, 2005) in 1938 as part of a systematic study of lysergic acid at Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. But it was not until 1943 that the psychoactive effects of this substance were discovered (Fadiman & Kornfeld, 2013). In what could be commonly regarded as an accident, Hofmann intoxicated himself by an unknown amount of this substance (Grof, 2008). Due to the extraordinary nature of the effects, he later decided to try a dose of 250 micrograms. Further experiments were conducted at Sandoz labs that led to the publication of a report of the effects of LSD in normal volunteers and psychiatric patients in 1947 (Grof, 2008). This report became widely popular in the scientific community and led to a high number of clinical and laboratory research studies in several countries (Grof, 2008).

Unfortunately, use of psychedelic substances was banned around the world in the late 60’s. Widespread irresponsible experimentation, coupled with government and mass media propaganda, managed to create a stigma and prejudice towards these substances that is beyond absurd. The fact that someone is legally allowed to possess a firearm at home, but not certain plants or non-toxic substances should make anyone question the rationale and motives behind prohibition. Psychedelic substances were used in clinical research, psychology and psychiatry for over two decades up until the early 1970’s. Recently, several research projects have been carried out around the world, giving birth to what is commonly known as the psychedelic renaissance.

The Work of Stanislav Grof

Let us now examine the work of Stanislav Grof (2008, 2009), a Czech-born psychiatrist and founder of transpersonal psychology, whose career dramatically changed after being the subject of an LSD experiment. Before the time of LSD prohibition, Grof worked in Europe and later in the United States as a psychiatrist and researcher. He analysed over 3000 LSD sessions and developed a theoretical basis for the experiences people were having. Furthermore, he developed two approaches to psychedelic therapy: the psycholytic and the psychedelic approach. The psycholytic approach used low to medium doses of 75 to 300 micrograms of LSD, and aimed to resolve tensions in the mind of the patient. The psychedelic approach used high doses of LSD, from 300 to 2000 micrograms, and aimed for the patient to experience ego death and have a peak experience. Grof (2008) considered the psychedelic approach to be the most therapeutic and time effective.

The psychedelic approach is the most relevant to the field of Transpersonal Psychology as people achieve powerful therapeutic breakthroughs through direct experience of transpersonal states. Grof (2009) stresses that this is facilitated by full validation and acknowledgement of transpersonal experiences. He classifies these experiences into two categories: “experiential extension within objective reality” (p. 159) and “experiential extension beyond objective reality” (p. 160). The first category of experiences includes a temporal expansion of consciousness in which a person can: (a) experience him or herself as an embryo or foetus, (b) live a past-incarnation, and (c) experience clairvoyance, clairaudience, or a precognition. Also among the many experiences in the psychedelic approach is a spatial expansion of consciousness in which a person: (a) identifies with another person, animal, or plant, (b) has out of body experiences, or (c) has an experience of oneness with life and all of creation. The second category of experiences includes: (a) people communicating with spirits, (b) encounters with suprahuman entities, (c) other universes and their inhabitants, (d) encounters with deities, and (e) activation of the chakras and kundalini energy which are Sanskrit terms referring to subtle energies within the human body. Although some of these experiences are very rare, Grof (2008, 2009) has been a witness and documented many of these experiences in a clinical setting.

Recent Psychedelic Research

Researchers at the Imperial College in London have been leading the current research on psychedelic substances. In 2016, a study examining the effects of LSD using modern neuroimaging was published (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016). This study is the first of its kind in human history. For the first time, the effects of LSD were successfully mapped using three different kinds of brain imaging techniques. The findings of this study shed light on the mechanisms of action of psychedelic substances. This is an area that has remained in the dark due to government prohibition. To summarize the results of the study, it was found that under the influence of LSD, the visual cortex became highly connected with areas of the brain that it would normally not. Also, reduced blood flow was observed in the default mode network, an area of the brain which plays a key role in internal or self-generated thought (Andrews-Hanna, Smallwood & Spreng, 2014). This is of clinical significance for psychology as some mental disorders reflect a failure to regulate activity of the default network or self-generated thought (Andrews-Hanna et al., 2014). Therefore, we can argue that psychedelics have the potential to assist in the treatment of these disorders. Furthermore, this network is also considered as the “seat of the ego” (Carhart-Harris et al., 2014, p.8) and users of psychedelic substances have reported experiencing loss of the sense of ego (Carhart-Harris & Nutt 2010) which brings transpersonal experiences as a result. Thus we can say that psychedelics can be used for facilitating transpersonal states which can have a strong therapeutic potential.

Another study examined the therapeutic effects of a similar psychedelic substance, psilocybin, which is the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms (Carhart-Harris et al., 2016a). Twelve individuals with treatment-resistant depression were given psilocybin along with psychological support before, during, and after the sessions. Results showed a significant decrease in depression scores 1 week and 3 months after treatment. This study represents a landmark in the literature of this field as it shows that a psychedelic substance used in a safe and supportive setting can deliver results that no other current treatment has been able to achieve. However, the sample size of this study was small as only 12 people participated.

A recent review of modern clinical research on LSD found no serious or negative long-lasting effects of the substance (Liechti, 2017). This report reviewed six studies, five in healthy participants and one in anxious individuals. The latter, examined the effects of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in patients suffering anxiety related to a life-threatening illness. Results of this study found significant reduction in anxiety 2 months after treatment (Gasser et al., 2014) and improvement in quality of life and reduced anxiety 12 months after administration of LSD (Gasser, Kirchner & Passie, 2015). It is important to note that the participants of this study were only given LSD on two occasions and a moderate dose of 200 micrograms. Also, only 12 individuals participated in this study which makes the results difficult to generalize to a broader population.

Additionally, an analysis of controlled clinical trials that used LSD for the treatment of alcoholism found that a single dose was associated with a decrease in alcohol misuse (Krebs & Johansen, 2012). This analysis included 6 trials and 536 participants. It is important to mention that this recent analysis considered only the literature of the 1960’s and 70’s and the studies did not find any long lasting harmful effects from the use of LSD.

A Personal Therapeutic Experience with LSD

I would like to share a personal experience that gave first-hand experience on the therapeutic potential of LSD. This experience was so significant that LSD and other psychedelics quickly became a new area of personal interest which later turned into a professional pursuit towards psychedelic studies.

A couple of friends, my partner and I rented a holiday house for a couple of nights near the beach. In a comfortable and safe setting, I ingested 150 micrograms of LSD. While on the peak of the experience my thoughts took me to revisit an old relationship. When I was 19 and left my home country to move overseas, I had to end a romantic relationship I had with a woman. She was my first love and a person I truly dedicated myself to and saw a bright future with. While living in this new country, I struggled severely with depressive symptoms for what could be months and years. Anything that reminded me of her elicited a strong emotional reaction, which I pushed away in order to not feel the pain. Six years later, I was totally convinced that I had processed all the feelings that had to do with the breakup; I thought I experienced all the sadness, and I was able to finally let her go. Well, not quite. Anything that reminded me of her would still elicit a reaction, not as strong as before but an uncomfortable feeling in most cases. I had buried my feelings deep.

While remembering her under the influence of LSD I saw some pastel sticks and a notebook I had brought to document my experience. I chose a blue and purple pastel; the blue represented myself and the purple my ex-partner. These were our favourite colors and had a strong association to both of us. I started randomly coloring the whole page in blue. I then decided to color in some purple. As I was doing this, I was remembering all the impact she had in my life, all the precious and beautiful moments we had together which I still felt attached to. The purple coloring started with great intensity remembering those moments, then slowly diminished as my memories took me to the end of our relationship. I noticed the paper started getting wet, and then I realized that I had been crying for some time while doing this drawing. I was so immersed in the memories and coloring that I did not notice the crying. I was expressing all this emotion through art. When I stopped coloring purple, I had a realization: there was still blue, this was me without her and I was fine (Figure 1). I felt a strong sense of connection to myself and a sense of independence and self-assurance. I felt a very powerful sense of relief and calmness. I laid down and felt an immense sense of peace and weightlessness. I was finally able to connect with and express all those previously repressed feelings.

Figure 1. Pastel drawing under the influence of LSD.

Figure 1. Pastel drawing under the influence of LSD.

In the words of Grof (2008): “a person who has taken LSD does not have an ‘LSD experience’ but takes a journey into deep recesses of his or her own psyche” (p. 11). This is clearly exemplified with the above story as I was able to reconnect with the feelings I purportedly hid from myself to avoid feeling pain. LSD facilitated a connection with deeper areas of my mind which allowed me to bring them to my conscious awareness and express them by means of creative art. My experience is also a great example of Grof’s psycholytic approach to LSD psychotherapy in which medium doses are used to assist a person to resolve inner conflicts or tensions. LSD allowed me to bypass or penetrate my own psychological defence mechanisms which repressed emotions and left them unprocessed. Furthermore, this experience shows us that art can be a very effective tool for therapy in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. Therefore, I can argue that current methods of experiential psychotherapy can be blended with non-ordinary states to produce quick and effective results.

Conclusion

To summarize, LSD is a psychedelic substance that acts as an amplifier of contents of the mind not previously accessible for observation. Its psychoactive properties were first discovered in 1943, the substance became a sensation in the world of psychiatry but was later prohibited for any use by governments worldwide. Recently, several research projects have been carried out exploring the effects of this substance. Results suggest that LSD, along with other psychedelics, when used in a safe setting and with psychological support, can help people with treatment resistant conditions such as depression. Recent research also found that LSD can reduce anxiety in individuals suffering from a life-threatening disease. I had a powerful abreaction experience during an LSD session which sparked a passionate interest in the field of psychedelic studies and their applications in psychotherapy. Following the literature revised, the research findings and my own experience, I argue that LSD is of great importance to the field of transpersonal psychology. LSD is a substance that has been shown to facilitate transpersonal experiences, help resolve inner conflicts in a short time, and assist in the treatment of mental and substance abuse disorders more efficiently than any other treatments currently available. Transpersonal psychology should fully embrace the field of psychedelics in order to show the world the great healing potential of transpersonal experiences and the spiritual and interconnected nature of all humanity.

I would like to finalize this essay by inviting the reader to seriously consider the evidence presented and to examine the references provided to develop a deeper understanding of the subject if it is of interest. Non-ordinary states of consciousness are part of our human experience and they allow us to perceive new aspects of our mind and our world which can lead us to revising or expanding these views. To suppress a particular method of inducing these states without any scientific basis is a serious mistake, which not only cripples scientific progress in numerous areas, but our development as a human species.

References

Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Smallwood, J., & Spreng, R. N. (2014). The default network and self-generated thought: component processes, dynamic control, and clinical relevance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1316, 29–52. http://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12360

Carhart-Harris, R. L., &
Nutt, D. J. (2010). User perceptions of the benefits and harms of
hallucinogenic drug use: a web-based questionnaire study. Journal of Substance Use, 15(4),
283–300. doi: 10.3109/14659890903271624

Carhart-Harris, R. L., Leech, R., Hellyer, P. J., Shanahan, M., Feilding, A., Tagliazucchi, E., … Nutt, D. (2014). The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 20. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00020

Carhart-Harris, R.
L., Muthukumaraswamy, S., Rosemana, L., Kaelen, M., Droog, W., Murphy, K., . .
. Nutt, D. J. (2016). Neural
correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging.
Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences of the USA
, 113, pp. 4853-4858. Doi:
10.1073/pnas.1518377113.

Carhart-Harris, R.L., Bolstridge, M., Rucker, J., Day, C. M. J., Erritzoe, D, Kaelen, M, . . . Nutt, D. J. (2016a). Psilocybin with psychological support for treatment-resistant depression: an open-label feasibility study, The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(7), pp. 619-627. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30065-7

Fadiman, J. & Kornfeld, A.
(2013). Psychedelic-induced experiences. In Friedman, H. L. & Hartelius, G.
The Wiley Blackwell handbook of transpersonal psychology. (pp. 352-363).
Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Gasser, P., Holstein,
D., Michel Y., Doblin, R., Yazar-Klosinski, B., Passie, T. & Brenneisen, R.
(2014). Safety and efficacy of
lysergic acid diethylamide-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated with
life-threatening diseases. The
Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 202
(7), pp. 513-520.

Gasser, P., Kirchner,
K. & Passie, T. (2015). LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety associated
with a life-threatening disease: a qualitative study of acute and sustained
subjective effects. Journal of
Psychopharmacology
, 29, pp. 57–68. Doi: 10.1177/0269881114555249.

Grof, S. (2008). LSD
Psychotherapy
(4th ed.). Ben Lomond, CA: Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Grof, S. (2009). LSD Doorway to the numinous. Rochester, VT: Park
Street Press.

Hofmann, A. (2005). LSD: My problem child. Santa Cruz, CA: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Krebs, T. S. & Johansen, P.
O. (2012). Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) for alcoholism: meta-analysis of
randomized controlled trials. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 26, 994 –
1002. Doi: 10.1177/0269881112439253

Liechti, M. E.
(2017). Modern clinical research on LSD. Neuropsychopharmacology, 42,
pp. 1-14. Doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.

Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a
Psychology of Being.
New York, NY:
Van Nostrand-Reinhold.

Maslow, A. H. (1969).
The farther reaches of human nature. The Journal of Transpersonal
Psychology, 1(1), 1-9.

Sotillos, S. B.
(2010).Humanistic or
transpersonal: homo spiritualis and the perennial philosophy. AHP Perspective (August/September), 7-11.

Walsh, R. (1993). The transpersonal movement: a history and state of the art. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 25(1), 123-139.

Science not Stigma: Safety of Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy for Mental Illness

By Victor Chiruta

The conversation of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has moved from the scientific community into the mainstream. In Australia, the two psychedelic compounds that have been proposed for rescheduling as controlled medicines are psilocybin (a compound from magic mushrooms) and MDMA (an ingredient sometimes present in ecstasy). Recent media coverage has raised the issue, that some believe there isn’t enough evidence in safety for the medical use of these compounds. This article will point to a number of respected peer-reviewed scientific journals giving evidence and confirming that both psilocybin and MDMA are safe if used in a medically controlled environment. The first compound we will examine is psilocybin.

The scientific journal Addictions reports the toxicity of psilocybin and magic mushrooms to be very low[1]. The lethal dose of psilocybin is extrapolated to 6g in humans. This is 300x the typical therapeutic dose of 20mg. Let’s just imagine consuming 300x your usual cup of coffee, dose of Panadol, pint of beer, or even your daily multi-vitamin! The Japanese Journal of Legal Medicine and the Proceedings of the Western Pharmacology Society have published that fatal intoxication due to ingestion of magic mushrooms is extremely rare[2][3]. A review on the harm potential of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms published in the scientific journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, found only two deaths due to direct overdosing internationally since 1960[4]. For comparison, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported 276 deaths from antidepressants and 663 deaths from anti-anxiety medication during 2016 in Australia alone[5]. The lethal toxicity of fresh psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms in humans is 17kg[4]. It would be highly unusual and very challenging to consume 17kg of mushrooms.

“…normally people do not die from a magic mushroom overdose, because they are not very toxic and the potential victim will spontaneously vomit keeping the final dose low.”
– Dr. Jan van Amsterdam, Addiction Specialist

The scientific journal Addiction Biology, reports that there is no evidence of physical dependence with psilocybin administration[6]. Further to this, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse concludes that available evidence indicates psilocybin is non-addictive[7]. Moreover, psilocybin profoundly facilitates remission from addiction in people with alcohol and tobacco dependency. Psilocybin is currently in clinical trials for treating cocaine and opioid addictions[8][9]. If used within a controlled setting, psilocybin has little to no adverse reactions[10]. Early therapeutic use of the pharmaceutical psilocybin, Indocybin® developed by Sandoz, was without complication[6]. In more recent trials, there have been no significant adverse events with psilocybin use[11].

The Journal of Psychopharmacology conducted a population study across a cohort of 135,000 and found no link between psychedelic use and psychosis[12]. The researchers found that, individuals who had taken psychedelics were not at increased risk of developing mental health problems, including schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide attempts. A scientific committee on drugs in the UK concluded that, psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms are amongst the least harmful psychotropic drug to the user and those around them[13].

Current controlled medicines buprenorphine, methadone, fentanyl, cannabis, ketamine, amphetamine; prescription medicines anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines; and unscheduled drugs tobacco and alcohol, all ranked as causing more harm to the user and more harm to others when compared to psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms. This research was recently repeated with similar results in Australia by a panel of 25 experts including psychiatrists, police, addiction specialists, doctors, and child protection workers[14].

Harm graphic

Figure 1. Circled in green the category ranking the harm of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms in comparison to other medicines and illicit drugs within Australia in 2019[14]. Circled in orange the ranking of harm of the category containing MDMA.

MDMA may have a reputation by being associated with the overdoses and deaths in relation to ecstasy pills at dance parties. In assessing the safety of MDMA, important distinctions need to be made between medicinal MDMA and the street-drug ecstasy:

Medicinal MDMA is administered in a medically-controlled clinical setting. It is pharmaceutical grade, dosage is known, patients are properly screened, the use of the medicine is regulated, and the medicine is administered only by trained health professionals. Understanding the distinction between the two types of drugs is fundamental when examining the evidence of MDMA for safety.

MDMA was first synthesised in 1912 by Merck[15]. Although it wasn’t until 1977 when MDMA began its use in psychotherapy when the safety of this compound was first studied. We have over 40 years of data to evaluate the toxicology and safety of medicinal MDMA in a therapeutic environment. The lethal dose of MDMA in humans is 10-20mg/kg[16]. The largest dose used in clinical studies is 1- 2mg/kg[17]. The lethal dose for MDMA is 10x greater than the therapeutic dose. Early therapeutic use of MDMA in psychotherapy was without complication[15]. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) have evaluated all 1,837 participants involved in recent controlled clinical MDMA studies[18]. MAPS has published that no unexpected serious adverse reactions were reported.

All serious adverse effects have been rare and non-life threatening. The Canadian Medical Association Journal have published, that MDMA administered therapeutically in a controlled environment does not produce dependence[19]. Therapeutic treatment with MDMA has not been shown to increase illicit drug use[18]. Morbidity and mortality of MDMA use has only occurred in uncontrolled non-clinical settings[20]. The International Journal of Drug Policy has published that in Australia between the years 2000 to 2018, 14 deaths have occurred due to MDMA toxicity only[21]. In comparison, the ABS reports 170 deaths due to paracetamol just in the year 2016[5]. In Figure 1, we see that MDMA is evaluated by Australian experts to cause less harm to the user and harm to others than the same medicines and illicit drugs as psilocybin.

There is no scientific or medical evidence to suggest that psilocybin nor MDMA when administered in a controlled clinical setting is linked to either mental illness or negative health outcomes. On the contrary, MDMA and psilocybin have been shown to be safe, non-toxic, and non-addictive when administered in a medically-controlled clinical environment. It is justifiable and evident why the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has granted both MDMA and psilocybin breakthrough medicine status in the US. The FDA has opened an ‘expanded access scheme’ for treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with MDMA, the Israeli Ministry of Health has embraced the treatment of PTSD with MDMA under ‘compassionate use’, and compassionate MDMA therapy has been conducted in Switzerland. With the remarkable results of these psychedelic medicines, it would be detrimental for suffering Australians not to have medically supervised access to these breakthrough treatments.

References

  1. Gable RS, 2004, ‘Comparison of acute lethal toxicity of commonly abused psychoactive substances’, Addiction, vol. 99, no. 6, pp. 686-696.
  2. McCawley EL, Brummett RE & Dana GW, 1962, ‘Convulsions from psilocybe mushroom poisoning’, Proceedings of the Western Pharmacology Society, vol. 5, pp. 27-33.
  3. Gonmori K & Yoshioka N, 2002, ‘A fatal case of mushroom poisoning by hallucinogenic species’. Japanese Journal of Legal Medicine, vol. 56, no.1, pp. P-15.
  4. van Amsterdam J, Opperhuize A & van den Brink W, 2011, ‘Harm potential of magic mushroom use: a review’, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, vol. 59, no. 3, pp. 423-429.
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2018, 0 – Causes of Death, Australia, 2016, Australian Government, viewed 6th September 2020, https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3303.0Main+Features62016?OpenDocument
  6. Passie T, Seifert J, Schneider U & Emrich HM, 2002, ‘The pharmacology of psilocybin’, Addiction Biology, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 357-364. Burdick, B. V. & Adinoff, B. 2013. proposal to evaluate mechanistic efficacy of hallucinogens in addiction treatment. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 291-298.
  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019, Psilocybin-facilitated Treatment for Cocaine Use, viewed 6th September 2020, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02037126
  8. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2020, Adjunctive Effects of Psilocybin and Buprenorphine, viewed 6th September 2020, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04161066
  9. Strassman RJ, 1984, ’Adverse reactions to psychedelic drugs: a review of the literature’, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 172, no. 10, pp. 557-595.
  10. Dos Santos RG, Bouso JC, Alcázar-Córcoles MA & Hallak J, 2018, ‘Efficacy, tolerability, and safety of serotonergic psychedelics for the management of mood, anxiety, and substance-use disorders: a systematic review of systematic reviews’, Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 11, no. 9, pp. 889-902.
  11. Johansen PO & Krebs TS, 2015, ‘Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behaviour: A population study’, Journal of Psychopharmacology, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 270-279.
  12. Nutt DJ, King LA & Phillips LD, 2010, ‘Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis’, The Lancet, vol. 376, no. 9752, pp. 1558-1565.
  13. Bonomo Y, Norman A, Biondo S, Bruno R, Daglish M, Dawe S, Egerton-Warburton D, Karro J, Kim C, Lenton S, Lubman DI, Pastor A, Rundle J, Ryan J, Gordon P, Sharry P, Nutt D & Castle D, 2019, ‘The Australian drug harms ranking study’, The Journal of Psychopharmacology, 33, no. 7, pp. 759-768.
  14. Passie T, 2018, ‘The early use of MDMA (‘Ecstasy’) in psychotherapy (1977–1985)’, Drug Science, Policy and Law, vol. 4, pp. 1-19.
  15. Jerome L, Schuster S & Yazar-Klosinski BB, 2013, ‘Can MDMA play a role in the treatment of substance abuse?’, Current Drug Abuse Reviews, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 54-62.
  16. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), 2018, Protocol and Synopsis MAPP1 IND #063384, MAPS Public Benefit Cooperation, viewed 6th September 2020, https://mapscontent.s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/research-archive/mdma/mapp1/MAPS- 2018-02-26-MDMA-MAPP1-Public-Blinded-Protocol-A1V1-26FEB2018.pdf
  17. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), 2019, Investigator’s Brochure, MAPS, viewed 6th September 2020, https://mapscontent.s3-us-west- amazonaws.com/research-archive/mdma/MDMA-Investigator-Brochure-IB-11thEdition- MAPS-2019-07-10.pdf
  18. Kalant H, 2001, ‘The pharmacology and toxicology of “ecstasy” (MDMA) and related drugs’, Canadian Medical Journal Association, vol. 165, no. 7, pp. 917-928.
  19. Sessa B, Higbed L & Nutt D, 2019, ‘A Review of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)-Assisted Psychotherapy’, Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 10, no. 138, pp. 1-7.
  20. Roxburgh A & Lappin J, 2020, ‘MDMA-related deaths in Australia 2000 to 2018’, International Journal of Drug Policy, vol. 76, no. 102630, pp. 1-6.

Investigating the profound and bizarre link between creativity, psychedelics and music

kaleidescope

“Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”

By Charlotte McAdam

Is the popular Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds really an acronym for LSD? Or was it innocently inspired by a drawing created by John Lennon’s son? This question has exercised the minds of Beatles fans since the song first appeared in the 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band. This magical mystery may never be solved; however, it is certain that the legendary band dabbled with psychedelic drugs throughout their career.

The Beatles are far from being the only band that make references to these substances, or consumed them to inspire their work. It is common knowledge that particular drugs are used, and of course abused, by artists around the world.

Together, let’s take a trip and explore why so many successful musicians were inspired by psychedelics. Is there a much deeper connection between our emotions, music and the therapeutic benefits of these substances? And if music itself is an act of creativity, is there more to inspired thought than we currently think?

The first stop on our journey is looking at creativity, which is a multilayered phenomenon. It can be defined as a human ability that provides artistic, organisational, and scientific innovation that moves the world forward. It is a skill that transcends traditional ways of thinking or acting to develop new and original ideas, methods or objects.

One of the cornerstones of creativity has been described as divergent thinking, which is the power to think outside the box. Music is one of the most creative activities known, as it involves the application of divergent thinking by putting the brain into a ‘state of flow’. Studying creativity can be a difficult thing to do. However, advances in technology and the birth of psychology have helped us map out the brain and consequently have a greater understanding of how it functions.

Mark Beeman, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at North Western University and author of the book The Eureka Factor, researches the cognitive neuroscience of insight. He explains that much of the research on the neural basis of insight has been framed by hemispheric differences, namely, that the right hemisphere contributes relatively more to insight solving, whereas the left hemisphere contributes more to analytic solving. “The world is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time,” Beeman says. “It needs to see the forest and the trees. The right hemisphere is what helps you see the forest.”

Image of the brain

Beeman extended his research and found that these sudden moments of insight can be measured by combining both fMRI and EEG technology. When the brain has an ‘Aha!’ moment, it is preceded by an equally sudden burst of brain activity – a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is believed to come from the binding of neurons: cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network that is then able to enter consciousness. Where does this burst of gamma waves come from? Beeman discovered the ‘neural correlate of insight’: the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG). This is a small fold of tissue, located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear.

Interestingly, Beeman also demonstrated that people who score high on a standard measure of happiness solve about 25 percent more insight puzzles than people who are feeling angry. It seems positive moods allow us to relax, we focus less on the troubling world and more on these remote associations.

While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve problems is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. This is why interrupting one’s focus – perhaps with walk outside or a game of Ping Pong, commonly seen at innovative companies such as Google – can be so helpful. Alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere are closely related with relaxing activities, which explains the concept of people have some of their best ideas during a warm shower. When our minds are at ease and alpha waves are rippling through the brain, we’re more likely to direct attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. Bob Dylan says it best, the answer is blowing in the wind.

Nevertheless, creative innovation requires more than only personal insight. Even if a person experiences a useful epiphany, that new idea is rarely the end of the creative process. More recently, research shows that the neural pathways and subsequent networks play an important role in the brain’s inclination towards creativity.

This involves the interaction of three main brain networks – executive brain network, default mode network and salience network. The ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated things is a central tenet in creative thinking. Exposure to different stimuli – such as new sounds, sights and sensations – create connections in the brain via the synapses, the points of connection, between the neurons. The more neurons, the more neural pathways and synapses, the greater the opportunity to spark new ideas and solutions.

Great innovation comes when we are not only captivated by the moment and imaginative but also motivated and compassionate to engage in the activity. Creativity requires both intelligence and imagination. We must have both an ability to learn what has come before us and have foresight and envision the way the world could be. Building on the foundations that have come before us.

Freddie Mercury is seen as the creative genius behind Queen. However, if it wasn’t for the combination of the talents of his other band members, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, with the addition of producers, recording technology and radio, we perhaps wouldn’t have iconic hits like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Creativity is truly an act of collaboration.

A new wave of scientific research in the past few years has shown time and again that psychedelic drugs offer extreme therapeutic potential in treating mental health issues including depression, PTSD and anxiety. These studies have also given way to new findings on their possible use for creative innovation.

It’s certainly no secret that psychedelics hold incredible potential to enhance creativity. Many highly- acclaimed artists, scientists, writers and musicians have credited these substances as playing key roles in their lives. For example, Francis Crick was reported to be using low doses of LSD when he discovered the double-

helix structure of the DNA molecule. Nobel-prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis explicitly stated that psychedelics helped him to develop the polymerase chain reaction, that allows you to replicate DNA sequences in a lab. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, championed the LSD experience, describing it as one of the most important experiences in his life. And you certainly don’t have to look far to find examples of art and music that are influenced by psychedelic experiences.

Image of the brain

So, exactly how do these compounds act as an aid for creativity?

In June 2018, researchers at the Imperial College London published a study examining the effects of psilocybin mushrooms, DMT and LSD. The participants were tested for a range of personality traits after taking the psychedelics. At the end of the three-month period of the study, results showed that the patients displayed a significant increase in cognitive flexibility or “openness” – which, according to the researchers, is at the crux of imagination, aesthetic appreciation, non-conformity, and creativity.

Ground breaking research funded by the Beckley Foundation has revealed that psychedelics allow new, unique connections to be made by connecting areas of the brain that normally keep to themselves. It’s possible that this is the basic mechanism through which these psychoactive compounds have their effect on creativity. Cutting-edge brain imaging technology shows the increased brain connectivity after LSD (right), compared to placebo (left).

Michael Pollan, author of the book How to Change Your Mind writes about the science behind psychedelics. He explains that people who try psychedelics, experience something that is known as “ego dissolution,” which is what happens when the sense of “self” totally disappears. When people report this feeling, there is a precipitous drop-off in activity in a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). This network seems to play some kind of regulatory role in how the brain communicates with itself. The brain starts to form new linkages and new connections. Parts of the brain that didn’t communicate before suddenly strike up conversations. It seems that psychedelics open the pathways for the brain to more actively collaborate within itself, and quietens the DMN or the ‘inner critic’.

Marijuana seems to make insights more likely. A paper by scientists at University College London, found that not only does cannabis lead to states of relaxation, but it also increases brain activity in the right hemisphere. This explains why marijuana has so often been used as a creative fuel; it seems to make the brain better at detecting the remote associations that define the insight process.

While constant interval conversations and collaboration in the brain may birth amazing creativity and “out of the box” thought, there can, however, be too much of a good thing.

For example, Methadone in an administered and controlled situation, can be moderately safe and is regularly used today by medical professionals for pain management. From the same source the street drug Heroin is made, which can become life-threatening with a high potential of abuse.

Similarly, there needs to be protocols put in place for psychedelics to be used in not only a safe setting, but in a controlled way to reap the most from their creative benefits. The purpose of going down the proverbial “rabbit hole”, is to bring something back with you.

This notion is best summed up in the words of Alan Watts “If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen.

A person can’t live in a constant state of having these light bulb moments any more than a top athlete can maintain peak performance over extended periods of time. Psychedelics however, could be a switch to help turn the creative mind on and off again. Already we are seeing the start of positive steps in this direction, with micro-dosing growing in study and usage in Silicon Valley in the USA. Since creativity lies at the heart of solving the problems we face as a species, it is an essential part of moving humanity forward. Psychedelics could just be that missing link.

Like any good journey, there are many factors that play into a person having a positive trip. Set and setting, are the most important aspects in the psychedelic experience. A person’s mindset “set” and the physical and social environment “setting” in which the user has the experience can greatly influence the outcome.

Music album covers

The drug itself does not produce the transcendent experience; it acts as the chemical key to open the mind. Which is where music comes into play.

The story of psychedelics is intertwined with the story of music, and tracing their relationship can feel like going in circles. It’s well known that rock musicians have always been heavily influenced by psychoactive compounds, inspiring an entire genre known as ‘Psychedelia’.

From Sting, the lead singer of The Police who wrote various hits after his experiences with Peyote and Ayahuasca to Green Day, who’s lead singer Billie Joe named the band after his first pot experience. From the band The Doors, who got their name from the Aldous Huxley book titled The Doors of Perception (which is based on the writer’s psychedelic experience under the influence of Mescaline) to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead. The list is as endless and timeless as the music itself. Interestingly, they also all explore similar themes of love, universal connection and peace.

The echoes of the psychedelic musical revolution are still seen today, influencing a whole new generation of musicians. Artists including Chance the Rapper, A$AP Rocky, Post Malone, Harry Styles, Noah Cyrus and Kacey Musgraves have all spoken about their experiences and how their music has been inspired from their trip.

We all know a particular song that can transport our minds to the moment we first heard that piece. Perhaps we remember the people we were with or the emotions we were feeling at that time. But the way we react to instrumental music, orchestras and symphonies, also allow us to connect to emotions and have vivid memories of times not linked to that song. It is almost as though music is so embedded into our nature, that it allows us access to deeper parts of our subconscious.

brain light

Do we share a connection with music that transcends what we know about ourselves and perhaps even the cosmos?

To understand this concept, we need to travel back in time to around 550 BC. Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, is attributed with discovering that a string exactly half the length of another will play a pitch that is exactly an octave higher when struck or plucked. One of his most important discoveries was that harmonic musical intervals could be expressed by perfect numerical ratios, a finding that led him to the realisation that all sensible phenomena follow the pattern of number. Therefore, the current music scale that we use is credited to Pythagoras.

He is also responsible for a theory known as The Harmony of the Sphere’s. Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution, and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds, which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.

Pythagoras believed music was medicine, and could heal diseases in the body. He used various intervals of harmonic ratios to “align souls to their divine nature”. The philosopher taught that music should never be approached merely as a form of entertainment. Rather, he proposed that music was an expression of “Harmonia”, the divine principle that brings order to chaos and discord. Music, just like mathematics, has a dual value because it enables humans to see into the structures of nature.

Music has evolved exponentially since that time, with its origins unknown, it is an integral part of human history. Music is found in every known society, past and present, including the most isolated tribal groups.

It seems music and the mind have always been closely connected. From the drums that motivate men to action or the calming sounds of a mother singing her child to sleep. What we can see from our history is that music has always been a part of uplifting or easing our emotions. Just like the stars gravitational orbit, music appears to bring order to the chaos of our minds.

Several studies published in ‘PLOS ONE’, have found positive changes that happen in the brain when people listen to music. One study found that listening to “happy” music – defined as classical tunes that were upbeat and stimulating – helped people perform better on tasks that involved “divergent” thinking.

Another, found that people who listened to classical music were more willing to share personal information about themselves in writing. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Chicago, noticed a similar effect during neurotherapy sessions when she played classical music while patients engaged in deep breathing. Jackson says “Some patients who typically have a hard time sharing or discussing emotional content are better able to open up and share,” adding that music may help relax people enough to open up about painful issues. Music can be an important component for healing during a psychology session, and studies have shown that it’s a pivotal part of psychedelic-psychotherapy.

Around the 1960s, scientists began studying the relationship between psychedelics and music. The scientists found that what LSD does to your brain seems to be similar to jazz improvisation “Just like these musicians use many more musical notes in a spontaneous and non-random fashion, your brain combines many more of the harmonic waves (connectome harmonics) spontaneously yet in a structured way.”

Much of the music used within this type of therapy is not especially “trippy.” Rather, it’s is there to evoke and support emotional experiences, including emotionally intense memories, thoughts or experiences. Most of the music used in psychedelic-assisted sessions is instrumental, and if there are vocals present, they are in an unfamiliar language. This is to make sure that the music is not conveying a specific meaning or telling a specific story.
This is similar to how indigenous tribes use singing, chanting and drumming during ceremonial use of psychedelic plants. The shamans of the amazon region believe the most important tool used during Ayahuasca ceremonies is the ‘icaro’. These traditional songs sung or whistled by shamans positively influence the internal landscape of a person’s psyche. Shamans believe drinking the ayahuasca brew puts you in direct contact with the spiritual plane, opening you up to both beneficent and bad spirits. Ultimately, the purpose of the icaro is guidance.

Iboga ceremonies in Africa, are another example of where music is used to facilitate subjective effects of the hallucinogenic substance. Participants who digest the iboga root, are subjected to polyrhythmic drumming by the shamans to induce a powerful trance. Researchers who have observed this practice of spirit mediumship have been informed that music acts as a safety-rope between this world and ‘the hereafter’. The increase in rhythmic changes, which stimulates the cerebellum and hippocampus in the same way as the plant, is assumed to augment the effect of the psychedelic substance. Researchers suggest that music and sound construct the place which is visited during the experience.

Psychedelic Art

Since psychedelic treatment can assist in a wide variety of mental illness, and sound therapy can do the same, can the combination of the two be one of the most powerful tools humans have to change the connections in the individual’s brain?

Tania De Jong, founder of Creativity Australia and co-founder of Mind Medicine Australia, explores the topics of creativity, music and neuroscience in her celebrated TEDx Melbourne Talk. Tania explains “the neuroscience of singing, shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways”. She continues by stating that research shows that music, like psychedelics, fire up the right frontal lobe, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative.

Tania additionally quotes an interesting study from the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which measured the heart rates of choir members. The researchers found that when a group sings together long enough, everyone’s hearts start beating as one, in a unified rhythmic pattern.

This activity creates physical changes in the body including lowering the stress hormone cortisol in the blood stream to toning our intercostal muscle, improving oxygen levels to the brain and boosting our immune system. The Swedish study goes on to say “singers may change their egocentric perspective of the world to a we-perspective – this touches on the fundamental question of why music is a universal phenomenon. If collective singing creates joint perspectives, it would indeed be bonding in the deepest sense.” 

This research accurately emphasises the importance of set and setting during a psychedelic experience. Music is an essential component for these substances to be beneficial in the healing process. Music is a key element as it helps connect personal themes and emotions. Psychedelics and music work together, like a beautiful symphony.

Creativity, psychedelics and music is a relationship that seems to be connected in a never-ending cycle. Harmoniously working alongside each other to assist in fine tuning wiring in the brain. Whether that’s through providing creative solutions or provoking intensely meaningful experiences. Psychedelics help open the mind, while music acts as a sort of mental tour guide, to lead you to your destination, wherever that might be.

References

10 WONDROUS THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOUR BODY WHEN YOU LISTEN TO CLASSICAL MUSIC
The Healthy. 2020. 10 Wondrous Things That Happen to Your Body When You Listen to Classical Music. [online] https://www.thehealthy.com/mental- health/classical-music-effects/

CAN PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS ENHANCE CREATIVITY?
MAPS. 2020. Can Psychedelic Drugs Enhance Creativity? – MAPS. [online] https://maps.org/news/multimedia-library/3171-can-psychedelic-drugs-enhance-creativity

HOW SINGING TOGETHER CHANGES THE BRAIN
DE JONG, T. 2013. How singing together changes the brain: Tania De Jong AM at TEDX Melbourne. [online] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_HOBr8H9EM

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: THE NEW SCIENCE OF PSYCHEDELICS
POLLAN, M., 2019. How to Change Your Mind. [United States]: NIELSEN BOOKDATA. IMAGINE: THE SCIENCE OF CREATIVITY

Lehrer, J., 2012. Imagine. [Grand Haven, Ml]: Brilliance Audio.

LSD TREATMENTS CAN ACTUALLY ‘HARMONISE’ THE BRAIN, STUDY SHOWS
McRae, M., 2020. LSD Treatments Can Actually ‘Harmonise’ The Brain, Study Shows. [online] ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/lsd-psychedelic-therapeutic-treatment-mental-illness-resets-brain-network-harmonics

OUT OF THE BOX: A PSYCHEDELIC MODEL TO STUDY THE CREATIVE MIND
Kuypers, K., 2018. Out of the box: A psychedelic model to study the creative mind. Medical Hypotheses, 115, pp.13-16. PYTHAGORAS AND THE CONNECTION BETWEEN MUSIC AND MATH

Stewart, J., 2020. Timeline 002: Pythagoras And the Connection Between Music and Math. [online] Vpr.org. https://www.vpr.org/post/timeline-002-pythagoras-and-connection-between-music-and-math#stream/0

THE SCIENCE OF LSD IN THE BRAIN
The Beckley Foundation. 2020. The Science of LSD In the Brain [online] https://www.beckleyfoundation.org/the-brain-on-lsd-revealed-first-scans-show-how-the-drug-affects-the-brain/

THE SPIRITUAL AND THERAPUTIC BENEFITS OF ICAROS SONGS IN AN AYAHUASCA CEREMONY
Staff, P. and Staff, P., 2020. The Spiritual and Therapeutic Benefits of Icaros Songs in An Ayahuasca Ceremony. [online] Psychedelic Times. https://psychedelictimes.com/the-spiritual-and-therapeutic-benefits-of-icaros-songs-in-an-ayahuasca-ceremony/

WHY PSYCHEDELIC DRUGS COULD TRANSFORM HOW WE TREAT DEPRESSION AND MENTAL ILLNESS
Vox. 2020. Why Psychedelic Drugs Could Transform How We Treat Depression and Mental Illness. [online] https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/5/21/17339488/psychedelics-mental-health-michael-pollan-lsd-psilocybin

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