Critics say that psychedelic drugs cause hallucinations and delusions, while proponents claim that they can be catalysts for creativity and insight. Which is true?
Do psychedelic drugs help to educate or delude us? Do they trick us or enlighten us?
Some people think that psychedelic drugs create a state of temporary insanity, which causes people to see things that aren’t really there, or believe things that aren’t really true.
In the comments under my columns, I sometimes see this point of view expressed, and this perspective is commonly portrayed in the media, as it dovetails with the U.S. government’s official position on psychedelic drugs.
Some people believe that the creativity enhancements, psychological insights, spiritual revelations, psychic phenomena, and mystical experiences reported by people who have used psychedelic drugs are all hallucinations, illusions, and delusions, caused by a chemical that warps one’s perception of reality.
I would like to address this commonly-held perspective, and share my thoughts on the subject.
When LSD was first discovered, one of the terms used to describe its effects was “psychomimetic,” which means that it supposedly simulates the experience of psychosis; i.e. being crazy.
In fact, one of the initial uses that Sandoz laboratories (the pharmaceutical giant where LSD was discovered) considered for LSD was as a way for psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals to experience a kind of temporary insanity, as a way for them to better understand their psychotic patients.
However, further research soon rendered these early notions inadequate and obsolete, as it became clear that most people who were given psychedelic drugs in a therapeutic setting did not become temporarily insane.
Within the vulnerable population of people who have psychotic tendencies, psychedelic drugs can sometimes trigger a psychotic break.
Even healthy people who ingest a psychedelic drug without proper preparation, or in the wrong situation, can be risking psychologically distressing consequences with lasting trauma.
However, when properly prepared, mentally healthy people who have a psychedelic experience generally act rationally, and while there may be some similarities to psychosis, there are also some very important distinctions.
In both cases, people might be unusually sensitive to sensory stimulation, experience a dissolution of the ego, make loose associations in their thinking, and experience a flood of unconscious material.
However, subjects under the influence of psychedelics are generally able to accurately test the reality of their perceptions, and they usually feel enriched and inspired by the experience.
People do not commonly hallucinate on psychedelic drugs.
To hallucinate means to believe that one is seeing or hearing something that isn’t really there, and this rarely occurs when people under the influence of the classical psychedelics, such as LSD, psilocybin, or mescaline.
Usually people can easily distinguish between what their mind is creating and what is actually present in physical reality.
While people often see closed-eye visuals, of unfolding geometrically-organized, fractal patterns, or dreamlike imagery, on psychedelics, rarely do people confuse this imagery with physical reality.
Many people describe their perception of the world on psychedelic drugs as being larger than it normally is, and that their minds are simply receiving more information than usual.
That is, everything from our normal physical reality is still present when one is tripping, only now there are added dimensions--brighter colors, more textured sound, vapor trails following movements, vibrating energy fields and auras--making the world seem richer, and allowing for either greater understanding or greater chaos.
In the late 1950s, the terms “pychomimetic” and “hallucinogenic” were considered inaccurate by an ever-growing number of researchers.
This is why the term “psychedelic,” meaning “mind manifesting,” was coined by the late Canadian psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, in a correspondence that he had with the late British novelist Aldous Huxley.
Genuine scientific advances, life-changing technological innovations, and hailed creative achievements, have all been catalyzed by psychedelic drugs.
Psychedelics have helped to advance every major aspect of human culture, in physics, biology, medicine, psychology, computer science, artistic expression, film, music, and spirituality.
To learn about how psychedelics have helped to inspire important advances in quantum physics, see David Kaiser’s book How the Hippies Saved Physics.
Nobel Prize winning biologists Francis Crick and Kary Mullis, both reportedly attribute enhanced mental capabilities to the use of LSD, which lead to some of the most important developments in modern genetics.
To learn more about the role that LSD played in Mullis’ thinking, see his book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field.
Apple--the innovative computer company that uses the motto “Think different”--was co-founded by Steve Jobs.
Jobs not only told a New York Times reporter that doing LSD was one of the 5 most important things that he did in his life, he also reportedly asked potential employees if they had ever used LSD as part of his hiring criteria.
To learn more about the role that LSD played in the development of personal computers and the internet, see John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
In music, there are too many examples, but the most popular rock band of all time, the Beatles, was heavily influenced by psychedelic drugs. According to John Lennon, their album Sergeant Pepper was largely inspired by LSD.
Studies by Oscar Janiger and James Fadiman demonstrate that LSD and mescaline can genuinely enhance creativity, by having an independent panel of judges evaluate the creative work produced under the influence of the psychedelics.
There has even been a preliminary scientific study suggesting that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may genuinely enhance telepathy.
Some people have had their psychedelic insights verified in the most prestigious way that our planet offers, by winning Nobel Prizes for them--like Mullis and Crick, for their work in genetics.
If that’s not confirmation that something real and of value can be reaped from psychedelic experiences, then I don’t know what is.
I think the evidence suggests that there is a genuine reality to what people experience on psychedelics, and that we are just learning to understand how to integrate this experience into Western society.
Nonetheless, I agree with the late psychologist Timothy Leary, who said that psychedelic drugs can “cause psychosis in bureaucrats who haven’t taken them.”
March 19, 2013
David Jay Brown
Santa Cruz Patch
Image: Frank Alan Bella
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