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Psychedelics and the religious experience
Psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD are being researched again after a 40-year hiatus, and the results are promising, from both a scientific and spiritual perspective.
I spent a lot of time in the Gardner A. Sage Library. I also passed many hours just outside of it. As a religion student at Rutgers University, it was accessible to me as part of the theological seminary. During the day, I would scour texts learning about ancient faiths. At night, I would climb down a metal ladder bolted into a brick façade leading to an underground courtyard.
By day, my imagination was filled with the visions and hallucinations of millennia-old sages and prophets. While the sun slept, I was having my own thanks to healthy doses of psilocybin and LSD. I would stare at movies that didn't exist playing across those bricks, contemplating the cosmos from a tiny library basement in New Brunswick.
My first cover story for the university's Daily Targum entertained the notion of having a religious experience while on psychedelics. My editor later told me she received numerous letters about the piece, most expressing disdain. Critics claimed it impossible to have the slow revelations of, say, disciplines like yoga and meditation instantly with a tab of acid. It is, they said, cheating.
In the 20 years since those long days and longer nights, my feelings haven't changed about the power of psychedelic (“mind manifesting") substances. Fortunately cultural assumptions have shifted dramatically. While these chemicals were scientifically studied and governmentally funded during the '50s and '60s, research ended when they were ruled illegal by Richard Nixon in 1970. The law states psychedelics have no therapeutic or medical value.
Since then, these substances have been locked in the same legal drawer as narcotics — ironic, as that word is derived from the Latin narko, “to make numb," a claim nobody on LSD would ever make. Decades of potential therapeutic research have been missed, most notably thanks to corporate greed.
Don't take my word for it. Here are the words of Director of the National Institute of Mental Health Tom Insel:
The N.I.M.H. is not opposed to work with psychedelics, but I doubt we would make a major investment. ... It would be very difficult to get a pharmaceutical company interested in developing this drug, since it cannot be patented.
Thankfully not everyone is so pessimistic. Psilocybin, the main compound in "magic mushrooms," was the focus of a recent trial at N.Y.U. Researchers discovered that it helps alleviate anxiety and existential distress in cancer patients. For the uninitiated, this sounds like an escape; much like my detractors in '95, psychedelics are believed to conjure false gods in the minds of users.
Nothing could be further from the truth. First off, psychedelic substances force you to confront personal issues — a "bad trip" is often encountered during an investigation of latent emotional content. In fact, during both of my experiences with the entheogenic brew ayahuasca, my entire evening was consumed not by visions of cosmic serpents, but by habitual character patterns. My revelations had nothing to do with universal harmony, but the courage to practice techniques for breaking bad habits. Yes, there were plenty of visual and auditory hallucinations. They simply weren't the most pertinent aspect.
Such introspection is not uncommon and should not be underrated. As philosopher and linguist Alan Watts wrote of his first LSD experience:
It was an intensely interesting aesthetic and intellectual experience that challenged my powers of analysis and careful description to the utmost.
Now, as Watts admits, and as I have experienced myself in over 100 psychedelic episodes, these substances serve other functions. And it is here that the true therapeutic and religious value emerges: a reduction in anxiety levels.
Pretty basic, no? Yet not so simple. Stress is most commonly associated with elevated levels of the steroid hormone cortisol. While low levels of cortisol help repair tissue after exercise, chronically elevated levels result in suppressed immune functioning, promotes osteoporosis, acts as a diuretic, disrupts sleep, is linked with excessive protein breakdown and obesity, and impairs learning by damaging the hippocampus. Anxiety is a killer in every sense.
On a larger scale, as evidenced in the N.Y.U. cancer study, anxiety regarding death is pervasive. Americans don't know how to die; we've never developed proper rituals for it. Many elders spend their final days in the cold confines of an ICU or in senior homes. Instead of celebrating life, we mourn the past, so much so that we're never really here.
Part of what psychedelics address is the present moment. This helps contribute to a drop in anxiety. Instead of an intense focus on where one is heading, or where one's been, this moment, now, is emphasized. Unsurprisingly, psychedelics alter brain chemistry in a similar manner as meditation.
This occurs in the brain's default mode, or, more broadly stated, the imagination. Our brain is always in one of two modes: central executive (complete focus) and daydreaming, the default. Researchers in Australia and Norway found that nondirective meditation — letting the mind wander while in meditation — helps reduce anxiety. This is the same region accessed by psychedelics.
As Michael Pollan writes in The New Yorker,
Blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers' reports of ego dissolution.
While anecdotes usually make for poor science, they play an essential role in neuroscience and psychology. Ego dissolution is the foundation both Buddhism and yoga were built upon. You can argue this idea persists in Christianity and Islam (“surrender"), in which the practitioner attempts to dissolve his personal ego through faith in an earthly representative of a godhead.
What persists in both anecdote and research, however, is that breaking patterns is one of the most substantial benefits of psychedelics. LSD and iboga may help alcoholism. MDMA, once used in marriage counseling, is now showing dramatic improvements in veterans dealing with PTSD. (So is yoga.)
This is where the religious experience comes into focus. A feeling of unity with your surroundings, a deeply held sense of comfort and continuity, the lightness of being as anxiety surrenders — all emotional sensations produced when the self-defeating neural regions are turned off during experiences with psychedelics, meditation, and the mental state known as Flow.
The mystical is chemical. When these egoistic brain centers shut down, crosstalk occurs between neural regions that don't otherwise communicate. Religious literature has expressed the sentiments that result for eons: unity, serenity, peacefulness, compassion. Given the frayed wires so many humans grapple with today, I'm not sure what could be more therapeutic, or spiritual, than this.
Image: agsandrew / shutterstock.com
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.