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Pushing Taboo: Exploring the Role of LSD in Transpersonal Psychology

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.

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

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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

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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

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By Diego Pinzon Rubiano

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