What are psychedelics?
Psychedelics otherwise known as psychedelic drugs or hallucinogens are powerful mind-altering substances. They exist in a variety of natural plants and can also be synthesized in labs. There are many types of psychedelics; some examples include:
- Psilocybin, which is found in more than 200 different mushroom species.
- DMT (N-N-dimethyltryptamine) which is found in various plants.
- 5-Me0-DMT ( 5-methoxy-dimethyltryptamine) which is also found in plants and in the venom of the Bufo-alvarius toad.
- LSD ( lysergic acid diethylamide) which is a semi-synthetic psychedelic made from ergot fungus.
How do psychedelics work?
Psychedelics work by decreasing blood flow to the default mode network while increasing blood flow to other areas in the brain. The default mode network is the part of the brain that is most active when we aren’t engaged in a particular task. Whenever we are self-reflecting, thinking about others, daydreaming, envisioning the future, and thinking with no particular goal in mind the default mode network is highly active. Buddhists refer to this as monkey mind, the mind that keeps chattering.
The default mode network is also what constructs our ego complex. The ego is the multitude of identities we perceive ourselves to be. It is what creates a very clear separation between us and the world. While the ego is a necessary part of our functioning, it can also create a lot of needless suffering. The decrease of blood flow to the default mode network suppresses our experience of the ego and unlocks parts of the mind we are unconscious of.
Another way to understand this is to think of the brain as a filtering valve. Our brains filter & organize the stream of consciousness in a way that is most conducive for our survival. In no way does this prove that we are perceiving reality as it actually is. Instead, we are experiencing our own unique but reduced version of reality based on our brain’s functioning. Science has shown that there are sound and light waves that we can’t perceive, yet these sound and light waves do exist proving that we are not able to perceive all of reality. Psychedelics change our brain’s functioning allowing us to perceive reality in a way we normally can’t.
The Effects of psychedelics
The effects of psychedelics can vary depending on the dose and substance taken. The most well-documented effect of psychedelics is that of hallucinations, which don’t always occur but are more likely at higher doses. Psychedelics warp our senses causing us to experience the world differently. For example, during one LSD trip, I was looking at a macadamia nut and was able to see every little fiber within it. Once the effects wore off I could no longer perceive such depth or subtleties in my environment. One may also experience patterns moving as if all material objects have some kind of essence within them. Sounds may become more intense or more finely perceived. Although the visual effects and hallucinations can be intriguing they are usually a distraction from the more meaningful part of a trip.
Psychedelics can induce profound visions of the future or the past. They can make us perceive time as moving quicker, slower, or not moving at all. They also allow us to experience the contents of our unconscious mind. This is where some challenging or disturbing material could come up and cause a user to experience paranoia, fear, or sadness. But this is also where we have the opportunity to learn the most about ourselves.
Psychedelics can induce varying levels of ego dissolution which can be described as a loss of identity. At a lower dose, it allows us to transcend parts of ourselves and connect more with others & nature. While a higher dose can result in a full-blown mystical experience, flooding our body with the emotion of awe (a mixture of wonder, fear, and the feeling that something is so great that it can’t be comprehended).
Some other effects include a feeling of being present, increased focus, and increased pattern recognition which may explain why psychedelics can help us find solutions to previously unsolvable problems. Psychedelics can also produce physical effects in the body. Most commonly this will be a change of temperature, nausea, and at higher doses a feeling of leaving the body. Some psychedelics like Ayahuasca can even result in vomiting.
The Negative Stigma of psychedelics
Even with new evidence emerging on the positive effects of psychedelics, there remains a lot of false and negative propaganda against their use. Most of the drug education in America is built on a foundation of fear not accuracy. The goal of the drug war is to scare people to prevent them from using “illegal” drugs. This is done at all costs including exaggerating and even fabricating some of the negative effects.
If we are honest we can recognize that the drug war is not a war on drugs but a war on consciousness. Psychedelics in particular can change the way we see the world, which is not something that the government or large corporations want to happen. They much rather feed you their program and have you believe what they want you to believe. Psychedelic use is not without risk but much of it has been exaggerated.
If you want to learn the truth about Psychedelics and drugs in general I recommend you read
The risks of psychedelic drug use
Most psychedelics are impossible to overdose on and are non-addictive. Those who use psychedelics report having a reduced desire to use them over time. Psychedelics are some of the safest drugs on the planet but that doesn’t mean that they don’t come with risks.
Psychedelics should NOT be used by people with psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Nor should they be used by people whose family history is present of such conditions. Such experiences can sometimes induce otherwise dormant psychological disorders in people. A stable psyche is a prerequisite for having a safe & positive psychedelic experience. It is best for people under 25 to wait before they use such substances as their brains have not yet fully developed.
Other drugs can be a contraindication and should not be used in conjunction with psychedelics. Legality is another issue as psychedelics remain illegal in most countries. Always do your own research and take all necessary precautions before using psychedelics. Even though psychedelics are generally safe you will occasionally hear horror stories which are usually due to users not following the 3 variables or guidelines of safe psychedelic use.
The 3 Variables of Safe Psychedelic Use
The 3 variables of set, setting, and dose are vital for a safe psychedelic trip.
1. Set is the mindset or intention you take such a substance with.
An example of failing to adhere to set would be taking a psychedelic when you just broke up with your partner and are feeling highly unstable. This may result in a suboptimal experience. Psychedelics have been shown to help people with depression and anxiety so they don’t necessarily have to be taken in a good state of mind. However, they will require more precautions when done in this scenario.
2. Setting is the environment you take the substance in.
An example of failing to adhere to setting would be taking it in a public place or with people you are uncomfortable with. This can also produce a subpar or even dangerous experience. Having an experienced guide & a safe container is highly recommended for a positive psychedelic experience.
3. Dose is the quantity of the substance you take.
Taking too large of a dose may result in an experience that is far too overwhelming and hard to comprehend or benefit from. It is best to start with a smaller dose and gradually increase it over subsequent trips.
Why take psychedelics?
There are several reasons why a person may want to take a psychedelic substance. The first is to alter consciousness, something humans have been doing for thousands of years. We all have a need to alter consciousness and we do it every day whether it’s with substances like caffeine and nicotine or foods that we eat. We can also alter our state of consciousness with meditation, exercise, dancing, singing, and many other activities. If we couldn’t alter our experience of consciousness, life would be an unlivable mundane experience. And although we alter our experience of consciousness in small ways daily we may occasionally want to alter our experience in a more profound way. Psychedelics can help us achieve that. While psychedelic use can be recreational, I want to focus on the more important reasons for using psychedelics which are for personal and spiritual growth as well as healing & recovery.
Using Psychedelics for Personal & Spiritual Growth
Psychedelics can accelerate our growth in a variety of ways. On a personal or professional level psychedelics allow users to open their minds and find novel solutions to lingering problems. We often get stuck in habitual patterns of thinking. Psychedelics can free us from this rigidity by engaging parts of the mind that are often unused. The increased blood flow to different parts of the brain, creates new neural pathways, enabling us to think in novel ways.
On a spiritual level psychedelics can help people transcend themselves and tune into hidden parts of reality. Various practices can help people create a greater connection to spirituality but psychedelic use is one of the most potent and fastest acting methods.
Many people keep their psychedelic use private due to the negative stigma associated with it. However, more people are starting to come out and speak about the transformative experiences they are having on psychedelics. Steve Jobs publically shared how his LSD experience was one of the most important experiences in his life. Still, many CEOs and entrepreneurs don’t disclose their use yet reap many of the benefits.
Using Psychedelics to treat depression and anxiety
In the 1950s and 1960s, psychedelics such as LSD were widely used in psychotherapy sessions. Once psychedelics became illegal in most countries many of the therapists and healers went underground to continue the therapeutic work. Today there is a growing number of therapists, healers, and shamans doing therapeutic work with psychedelic medicines. There are many studies and personal reports which show that psychedelics used in a therapeutic setting can reduce anxiety and depression.
Studies done in NYU and John Hopkins showed that psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in mushrooms ) was effective in alleviating anxiety and depression in cancer patients. After only one experience 80% of the patients reported an improvement in mood and a reduction in anxiety. These benefits seemed to last for up to 6 months after the initial experience. Additionally, 67% of participants reported that this was one of the top five most meaningful experiences in their lives
Depression is said to be the “me” disease, a condition that perpetuates as we can’t stop thinking about ourselves. Anxiety is the inability to deal with uncertainty, which results in constant worry and anticipation of the future. People with anxiety & depression usually have overactive default mode networks and often experience a flow of constant negative chatter. The ability of psychedelics to reduce blood flow to the default mode network can provide a much-needed break from negative thoughts and self-obsession. Getting out of the “me” space and into the unity of life can be extremely healing.
Treating addiction with Psychedelics
There is an increasing amount of evidence highlighting the potential of treating addiction with psychedelics. A pilot study published in 2014 took heavy smokers through a 15-week psychotherapy course along with 3 doses of psilocybin. After 6 months 80% of participants remained abstinent from smoking. A follow-up study showed that 16 months later 60% of participants remained smoke-free.
Another example was a meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies done by Krebs & Johansen which showed that LSD could improve alcohol abstinence for at least 12 months. As of late, clinics are popping up in different countries where psychedelics such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, 5-Me0-Dmt, and Iboga are being used to treat addiction.
Iboga (an African psychedelic root bark) seems to be particularly effective in helping people deal with heavy conditions such as opioid addiction by eliminating withdrawal symptoms after one session. We don’t exactly know why psychedelic use can be effective for drug addiction but it seems to reset the central nervous system. This reset can help addicts break free from old neural patterns and develop more healthy ones. Psychedelics may also have an epigenetic effect. Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that can turn genes on and off. Psychedelics may be able to turn on certain genes in our bodies that are vital for healing and recovery.
Integrating psychedelic experiences
If used properly psychedelics can be valuable tools but they are not magic pills. For a psychedelic experience to be truly transformative it must be integrated. Integration can be in the form of therapy, self-reflection, or meditation. It often involves figuring out how the experience fits into the scope of your daily life, what it has taught you, or changed within you? It can involve shadow work, the processing of unconscious material which the trip brought up. Some people had 136 psychedelic trips but remain stuck in old negative patterns of thought and behavior. This often happens when psychedelics are not used in the proper context and when integration is neglected. It is important, to be honest with yourself as to why you are using psychedelics. You can use psychedelics recreationally but don’t delude yourself into thinking you are doing deep inner work when you are just getting high.
Books on Psychedelics
If you want to learn more about Psychedelics a great resource is How to Change your Mind by Michael Pollan. Pollan is a journalist and writer who dives deep into whatever topic he decides to write about. In doing research for this book he actually had several psychedelic experiences which allowed him to gain a greater understanding of these substances.
Another great resource would be the Psychedelic Explorer’s guide by James Fadiman. Fadiman has done extensive research on psychedelics and has compiled the largest amount of entries detailing people’s psychedelic experiences. There are also recommended guidelines both for users and guides.
Psychedelics are powerful substances that can produce profound consciousness-expanding experiences. Psychedelics reduce blood flow to the default-mode network which is the part of the brain responsible for our experience of ego. Users can transcend themselves while tapping into new neural pathways, leading to insights and powerful transformations.
Although there has been much negative stigma around them in the past there is now new information highlighting the positive potential of psychedelic use. There is evidence that psychedelics can help people dealing with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and addiction.
When used with the intention of personal growth or healing proper integration is necessary to maintain lasting benefits.
Although the risks and negative effects of psychedelics are minimal they must always be used with great respect and caution. Always do your own research and preparation before partaking on a psychedelic journey.