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8 must-read books on the psychedelic experience
Psychedelics are going mainstream. Here's your reading list.
- Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into psychedelics companies right now.
- With loosening restrictions on clinical research, new therapeutic modalities are being investigated for anxiety, depression, and more.
- The psychedelic literature is rich with anecdotal accounts and clinical studies.
UC Berkeley recently announced the launch of its center for psychedelic research and education, thanks to an anonymous $1.25 million donation. This follows Imperial College London's 2019 founding of The Centre for Psychedelic Research and Johns Hopkins's Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. The U.S. company, MindMed, which is working on clinical studies on ibogaine's efficacy in treating addiction, is planning an IPO. A host of similar Canadian companies have already entered that country's stock market.
What a long, strange trip it's been.
As psychedelics are catapulted into the mainstream, the following eight books cover a range of related topics, including clinical research and anecdotal tales. Whether you're an advocate, a newbie, or just curious, these books provide a great education on the therapeutic and spiritual potential of the psychedelic ritual.
Huxley on Psychedelics
Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain — James Kingsland
Science journalist James Kingland takes a broad view of altered states of consciousness, including lucid dreaming, virtual reality, hypnotic trances, and microdosing (and larger doses) with psychedelics. His journeys with ayahuasca, LSD, and psilocybin recount intense personal experiences and are worthwhile for anyone interested in the science behind these substances. In the end, Kingsland reminds us the real work of any trip is done in sobriety.
"In some ways the trip is the easy bit. The hard work starts when you try to integrate the lessons you have learned into ordinary life."
Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs — Richard J Miller
Northwestern pharmacology professor Richard J Miller was exposed to the power of psychedelics while attending Woodstock. This "religious experience" inspired his career in pharmacology. He wanted to discover how substances can alter neurochemistry this profoundly. In "Drugged," Miller investigates a range of mind-changing substances, including coffee, opium, cannabis, and antidepressants. The chapters devoted to psychedelics provide a great overview of their clinical and spiritual applications.
"The powerful effects of natural products such as Amanita muscaria or ergot suggest that they contain important chemical substances that, if isolated and understood from the structural point of view, might provide us with new insights into disease mechanisms or potential therapeutic opportunities for treating diseases."
Hallucinogens: A Reader — Edited by Charles Grob
UCLA Medical Center professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, Charles Grob, was the first researcher approved to clinically study MDMA and ayahuasca in the '90s. His pioneering (and continued) work in these fields has pushed the field of psychedelic research forward. This 2002 collection features the writings of Ralph Metzner, Terence McKenna, Huston Smith, Rick Strassman, and an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil. The book closes with three exceptional essays by Grob on the psychology of ayahuasca, the politics of MDMA research, and psychiatric research with hallucinogens.
As Weil says of his experiences with psychedelics,
"It can give you a vision of possibility, but then it doesn't show you anything about maintaining that possibility. When the vision goes, the drug wears off, you are back where you were, you haven't learned anything but you have seen that something is possible. It is then up to you to figure out how to manifest the possibility.
Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers — Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hoffman, and Christian Ratsch
This 1998 encyclopedia of psychedelic plants and fungi is the bible of cosmonauts. Everything is covered: history, culture, pharmacology, therapeutic applications, regional distinctions, chemistry, maps, and tons of photos. This resource should be in any serious cosmonaut's library. While grounded in research and respectful of the cultures that practice plant medicine, the trio of experts also understand their broader context.
"The psychic changes and unusual states of consciousness induced by hallucinogens are so far removed from similarity with ordinary life that it is scarcely possible to describe them in a language of daily living. A person under the effects of a hallucinogen forsakes his familiar world and operates under other standards, in strange dimensions and in a different time."
American writer William Seward Burroughs (1914-1997), author of the cult novel "Naked Lunch."
Credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Psychedelic Medicine: The Healing Powers of LSD, MDMA, Psilocbyin, and Ayahuasca — Dr. Richard Louis Miller
Richard Louis Miller has been a clinical psychologist for over a half-century. He's also the host of a popular syndicated talk radio show, where he discusses health, mindfulness, and politics. This platform led him to explore psychedelics in a broad scientific and political context.
This book is a collection of interviews from his show, featuring David Nichols, Stanislav Grof, Charles Grob, Roland Griffiths, Amanda Feilding, and Dennis McKenna. They cover a range of issues, such as MDMA as a therapy for PTSD, the efficacy of the current psychiatric paradigm, and psilocybin in depression treatment. These invaluable conversations include this important insight from MAPS founder, Rick Doblin.
"The fundamental problem with our drug policy is that it ascribes good and bad qualities to drugs themselves—"this is a good drug, that's a bad drug"—when really it's the relationship that you have with the drug that determines the value of it and whether it's harmful or helpful."
The Doors of Perception — Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley's landmark 1954 book on mescaline remains fundamental to psychedelics advocates. Huxley wanted to experience mystic visions, a feat mescaline offered. Yet he never fell prey to the whims of useless metaphysics. This stunning essay details a political and spiritual thinker applying pragmatic as well as transcendental understandings of the psychedelic vision.
"The other word to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant."
When you get the message, hang up the phone. That summates the British philosopher's take on psychedelics. While his lane was more meditation and philosophy than drugs—though he was known for enjoying a drink—Watts has plenty to offer on altered states. Watts applies a critical eye to the slacker looking to get off on drugs, yet also recognizes the essential need for connection to nature in an ever-speedy society—this book was published in 1962. That's the thing about reading Watts: it always catches up to you, wherever you happen to be, trademark humor and all.
"It is not really healthy for monks to practice fasting, and it was hardly hygienic for Jesus to get himself crucified, but these are risks taken in the course of spiritual adventures."
The Yage Letters Redux — William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
This correspondence between two of the Beat generation's top writers is a gem. Burroughs spent months traveling around South America looking for the legendary ayahuasca (yage), long before private planes shuffled Silicon Valley execs to glamping retreats. That meant purchasing bootleg ayahuasca and having colorful run-ins with locals. Many remember Burroughs as a junkie—he had his moments—but the writer also meticulously documented the pharmacology of his drugs. Kerouac owned the road, but Burroughs claimed the sky.
"Yage is not like anything else. This is not the electric euphoria of coke which activates the channels of pure pleasure in the brain, the sexless, timeless, negative pleasure of opium. It is closer to hashish than to any other drug. There are also similarities between Peyote and yage. But while hashish intensifies all sensual impressions, yage distorts or shuts down ordinary sensations, transporting you to another level of experience."
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Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.
- We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
- If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
- Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
The 5 eras of the universe<p>There are many ways to consider and discuss the past, present, and future of the universe, but one in particular has caught the fancy of many astronomers. First published in 1999 in their book <a href="https://amzn.to/2wFQLiL" target="_blank"><em>The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity</em></a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Adams" target="_blank">Fred Adams</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_P._Laughlin" target="_blank">Gregory Laughlin</a> divided the universe's life story into five eras:</p><ul><li>Primordial era</li><li>Stellferous era</li><li>Degenerate era</li><li>Black Hole Era</li><li>Dark era</li></ul><p>The book was last updated according to current scientific understandings in 2013.</p><p>It's worth noting that not everyone is a subscriber to the book's structure. Popular astrophysics writer <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/#30921c93683e" target="_blank">Ethan C. Siegel</a>, for example, published an article on <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/07/26/we-have-already-entered-the-sixth-and-final-era-of-our-universe/#7072d52d4e5d" target="_blank"><em>Medium</em></a> last June called "We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe." Nonetheless, many astronomers find the quintet a useful way of discuss such an extraordinarily vast amount of time.</p>
The Primordial era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjEzMjY1OX0.PRpvAoa99qwsDNprDme9tBWDim6mS7Mjx6IwF60fSN8/img.jpg?width=980" id="db4eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e568b0cc12ed624bb8d7e5ff45882bd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1049" />
Image source: Sagittarius Production/Shutterstock<p> This is where the universe begins, though what came before it and where it came from are certainly still up for discussion. It begins at the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. </p><p> For the first little, and we mean <em>very</em> little, bit of time, spacetime and the laws of physics are thought not yet to have existed. That weird, unknowable interval is the <a href="https://www.universeadventure.org/eras/era1-plankepoch.htm" target="_blank">Planck Epoch</a> that lasted for 10<sup>-44</sup> seconds, or 10 million of a trillion of a trillion of a trillionth of a second. Much of what we currently believe about the Planck Epoch eras is theoretical, based largely on a hybrid of general-relativity and quantum theories called quantum gravity. And it's all subject to revision. </p><p> That having been said, within a second after the Big Bang finished Big Banging, inflation began, a sudden ballooning of the universe into 100 trillion trillion times its original size. </p><p> Within minutes, the plasma began cooling, and subatomic particles began to form and stick together. In the 20 minutes after the Big Bang, atoms started forming in the super-hot, fusion-fired universe. Cooling proceeded apace, leaving us with a universe containing mostly 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, similar to that we see in the Sun today. Electrons gobbled up photons, leaving the universe opaque. </p><p> About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough that the first stable atoms capable of surviving began forming. With electrons thus occupied in atoms, photons were released as the background glow that astronomers detect today as cosmic background radiation. </p><p> Inflation is believed to have happened due to the remarkable overall consistency astronomers measure in cosmic background radiation. Astronomer <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCVTSQw7WU" target="_blank">Phil Plait</a> suggests that inflation was like pulling on a bedsheet, suddenly pulling the universe's energy smooth. The smaller irregularities that survived eventually enlarged, pooling in denser areas of energy that served as seeds for star formation—their gravity pulled in dark matter and matter that eventually coalesced into the first stars. </p>
The Stelliferous era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMjA0OTcwMn0.GVCCFbBSsPdA1kciHivFfWlegOfKfXUfEtFKEF3otQg/img.jpg?width=980" id="bc650" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c8f86bf160ecdea6b330f818447393cd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="481" data-height="720" />
Image source: Casey Horner/unsplash<p>The era we know, the age of stars, in which most matter existing in the universe takes the form of stars and galaxies during this active period. </p><p>A star is formed when a gas pocket becomes denser and denser until it, and matter nearby, collapse in on itself, producing enough heat to trigger nuclear fusion in its core, the source of most of the universe's energy now. The first stars were immense, eventually exploding as supernovas, forming many more, smaller stars. These coalesced, thanks to gravity, into galaxies.</p><p>One axiom of the Stelliferous era is that the bigger the star, the more quickly it burns through its energy, and then dies, typically in just a couple of million years. Smaller stars that consume energy more slowly stay active longer. In any event, stars — and galaxies — are coming and going all the time in this era, burning out and colliding.</p><p>Scientists predict that our Milky Way galaxy, for example, will crash into and combine with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years to form a new one astronomers are calling the Milkomeda galaxy.</p><p>Our solar system may actually survive that merger, amazingly, but don't get too complacent. About a billion years later, the Sun will start running out of hydrogen and begin enlarging into its red giant phase, eventually subsuming Earth and its companions, before shrining down to a white dwarf star.</p>
The Degenerate era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTk3NDQyN30.gy4__ALBQrdbdm-byW5gQoaGNvFTuxP5KLYxEMBImNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="77f72" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08bb56ea9fde2cee02d63ed472d79ca3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Diego Barucco/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Next up is the Degenerate era, which will begin about 1 quintillion years after the Big Bang, and last until 1 duodecillion after it. This is the period during which the remains of stars we see today will dominate the universe. Were we to look up — we'll assuredly be outta here long before then — we'd see a much darker sky with just a handful of dim pinpoints of light remaining: <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/evaporating-giant-exoplanet-white-dwarf-star" target="_blank">white dwarfs</a>, <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/new-observations-where-stars-end-and-brown-dwarfs-begin" target="_blank">brown dwarfs</a>, and <a href="https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/definition-what-is-a-neutron-star" target="_blank">neutron stars</a>. These"degenerate stars" are much cooler and less light-emitting than what we see up there now. Occasionally, star corpses will pair off into orbital death spirals that result in a brief flash of energy as they collide, and their combined mass may become low-wattage stars that will last for a little while in cosmic-timescale terms. But mostly the skies will be be bereft of light in the visible spectrum.</p><p>During this era, small brown dwarfs will wind up holding most of the available hydrogen, and black holes will grow and grow and grow, fed on stellar remains. With so little hydrogen around for the formation of new stars, the universe will grow duller and duller, colder and colder.</p><p>And then the protons, having been around since the beginning of the universe will start dying off, dissolving matter, leaving behind a universe of subatomic particles, unclaimed radiation…and black holes.</p>
The Black Hole era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjE0OTQ2MX0.ifwOQJgU0uItiSRg9z8IxFD9jmfXlfrw6Jc1y-22FuQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="103ea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0e6a71dacf95ee780dd7a1eadde288d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1400" data-height="787" />
Image source: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock/Big Think<p> For a considerable length of time, black holes will dominate the universe, pulling in what mass and energy still remain. </p><p> Eventually, though, black holes evaporate, albeit super-slowly, leaking small bits of their contents as they do. Plait estimates that a small black hole 50 times the mass of the sun would take about 10<sup>68</sup> years to dissipate. A massive one? A 1 followed by 92 zeros. </p><p> When a black hole finally drips to its last drop, a small pop of light occurs letting out some of the only remaining energy in the universe. At that point, at 10<sup>92</sup>, the universe will be pretty much history, containing only low-energy, very weak subatomic particles and photons. </p>
The Dark Era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzg5OTEyMH0.AwiPRGJlGIcQjjSoRLi6V3g5klRYtxQJIpHFgZdZkuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c77" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7a857fb7f0d85cf4a248dbb3350a6e1c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Big Think<p>We can sum this up pretty easily. Lights out. Forever.</p>
Dr. Katie Mack explains what dark energy is and two ways it could one day destroy the universe.
- The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
- Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
- The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty