A critique of psychedelic research
My title might lead some who are old enough to remember the incident 1 2 to expect from this essay an indictment of the idiots who conducted the “scientific research” during which an elephant was clearly murdered.3 It is always great fun to expose foolishness and willful ignorance. But unfortunately, psychedelic research in those days, the 1950s and 1960s, attracted no small number of other scientists who, at least in retrospect, could also be called idiots.
Jean Houston (1967) has described one of her initial observations of LSD administration. The subject was told by the psychiatrist that he would have “a terrible, terrible experience” filled with “strong anxiety and delusions.” The drug was administered in an antiseptic hospital room with several observers in white coats watching him. As the effects came on, the psychiatrist asked such questions as, “Is your anxiety increasing?” At the end of the experiment, the subject was in a state of panic. The psychiatrist announced to the group that LSD is indeed a “psychotomimetic” substance, which induces psychotic behaviour. 4
…Not to mention the crew of highly-degreed idiots of MK-Ultra fame who, among other disreputable exploits, in the course of their “scientific research” dosed an entire French village, with disastrous consequences.5 Since idiocy has already been so well covered, rather than launch into what might be just another lengthy tome on the subject sure to offend some of the descendants of those pioneering geniuses, I’d like to talk about another case in which scientific research and an elephant are featured. And here too, the science involved is not totally innocent of ignoring something important. Happily, it is a far more benign ignorance than that exhibited by those mentioned above. However, once my case
has been made, I hope the reader will see that the ignore-ance, for the most part unintentional and excusable, absolutely permeates the entire enterprise called psychedelic research, from the 1950s through to the present. Quite a claim, to be sure.
Let me then introduce the elephant. He is an apparently mythical but oft-mentioned beast taken to standing unnoticed in the middle of rooms. The one I shall describe might be better thought of as standing in the middle of the laboratory, given that it is the typical psychedelic research scientist who does the not-noticing.
A compelling intro so far, but I can hear mutterings from the back of the lab insisting that, “OK, but this better be good!” I shall try to make it so, but as one might expect given my claim that just about nobody has noticed the elephant, it must be coated with some formidably efficacious invisible paint, a commodity so far known only in Tex Avery productions. In other words, it might take some even more efficacious cleansing of one’s doors of scientific perception before the beast begins to show itself, even if my efforts at paint-removal are deemed logically irreproachable.
What practically no-one has explicitly noticed is that once one has voluntarily ingested a psychedelic chemical, there follows the involuntary adherence of that substance to some brain neuro-receptors, and that between this second event and the voluntary “psychedelic effects” that are then studied by the team, there is an important yet overlooked neurological/psychological/cognitive middle ground, some facilitating event or process between the involuntary action of the drug at its target and the final outcome that the “subject” does. More mutterings from the back of the lab: “oh c’mon, we give ’em the drug
and then the effect happens, and if we block the receptors the effect doesn’t happen. What could be more simple than that?”
First, let me insist that the final “psychedelic effects” are always voluntary, in the sense that it is something the subject does, not something that happens to him.6 The lodging of the drug at his neuro-receptors is something that happens to him, but then, according to configurable circumstances, the situation and intentions of the “subject”, the research agenda, the personalities of all involved, the “set and setting”… the subject intentionally and with foresight and with conscious reference to those configurable parameters embarks on the road to the effects – either directly sought or discovered along the route. If the effects were not voluntary, then they would surely be easily reproducible and predictable, and with little variation as are the effects of taking an antibiotic for an infection, an example of an involuntary effect.
What I intend to add to this chain of events is a semi-voluntary step7 achieved by a neurocognitive brain network, that logically and operationally connects the first involuntary step and the final psychedelic experience. This intermediate step will be seen to be the only important effect that is truly and logically, and pharmaceutically (involuntarily) caused by the psychedelic drug. And, it will be seen to be the very type of operation that could lead to such a wealth of “Varieties of Psychedelic Experience” – see the next paragraph here.
We have, then, for the purported psychedelic “effects” the following list : LSD and peyote are potent psycho-chemicals that alter and expand the human consciousness. Even the briefest summation of the psychological effects of these drugs would have to include the following: Changes in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and kinesthetic perception; changes in experiencing time and space; changes
in the rate and content of thought; body image changes; hallucinations; vivid images— eidetic images—seen with the eyes closed; greatly heightened awareness of color; abrupt and frequent mood and affect changes; heightened suggestibility; enhanced recall or memory; depersonalization and ego dissolution; dual, multiple, and fragmentized consciousness; seeming awareness of internal organs and processes of the body; upsurge of unconscious materials; enhanced awareness of linguistic nuances; increased sensitivity to nonverbal cues; sense of capacity to communicate much better by nonverbal means, sometimes including the telepathic; feelings of empathy; regression and “primitivization”; apparently heightened capacity for concentration; magnification of character traits and psychodynamic processes; an apparent nakedness of psychodynamic processes that makes evident the interaction of ideation, emotion, and perception with one another and with inferred unconscious processes; concern with philosophical, cosmological, and religious questions; and, in general, apprehension of a world that has slipped the chains of normal categorical ordering, leading to an intensified interest in self and world and also to a range of responses moving from extremes of anxiety to extremes of pleasure. These are not the only effects of the psychedelic drugs…8
When I first read this I was immensely relieved to hear there were even more effects than those listed! So are we to conclude that certain neuro-receptors, the 5HT2a ones that when blocked prevent all of those effects, are like some sort of switch that when once thrown, is the logical and direct cause of those effects?
Yet even a moment’s reflection tells you that attributing the content of the psychedelic experience to “drugs” explains virtually nothing about it.9
We are then logically forced to ask: What is the actual effect of a psychedelic drug beyond the obvious initial effect of the substance lodging at some brain receptors? Some early research tried to pin the blame on “set and setting” as the elephant standing between the psychedelic drug lodging on brain receptors and what subsequently happened with the “subject” or “patient”. But that also explains little: my experience of my everyday day also is entirely determined by the set and setting of that day. So what is the nature of this elephant? A more “scientific” analogical entity might be useful here: the concept of a “black box”. It has several inputs, and several outputs, but what happens inside we know not.
The inputs are multiple, and the one we are immediately concerned with here is the lodging of a psychedelic chemical on some of the brain’s neuro-receptors. A very simple, sublunary and repeatable event that has really nothing about it that would differentiate one dose or one psychedelic experience from another. But other inputs will do fine as well, at least sometimes: meditation, sensory deprivation, religious techniques, breathing exercises, CO2 inhalation, extreme sport… the list of things is long that have been reported to bring about the outputs of the black box such as items in Masters & Houston’s long list above. Outputs such as religious ecstasy or cosmic consciousness or whatever you want to call it can even happen spontaneously, with apparently no input to the black box!
Now the question of course becomes, what the deuce is inside that black box? How can so many apparently diverse inputs produce an even greater abundance of outputs and who or what is doing the choosing inside the box? It might seem the hidden circuits inside the box must be enormously complex, but I believe it is a single, readily-defined operation, perhaps some cognitive process or event, that when spurred by a drug or meditation, or other input, can reliably and without prejudice as to the spurring agent, then be the first event in a causal chain leading a person to undergo a psychedelic experience that may feature any of the characteristics formerly thought of as effects. The reader may have to reflect on this for awhile, to finally see that there surely is a “something” in the black box that is the same something that is spurred, invigorated, amplified by an input, and it is the same something in all cases that then incites/permits/encourages the person to “do” a psychedelic experience. Otherwise, cause and effect have no meaning when we look at the overall picture. (A “cause” that does this, or maybe that, or none of the above sometimes, but not always, or maybe is not even necessary…)