8 must-read books on the psychedelic experience

Psychedelics are going mainstream. Here's your reading list.

illustration of hand holding mushroom
Photo: Yellow_Cat / Shutterstock
  • 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."

William Seward Burroughs

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."

The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness — Alan Watts

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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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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