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How psychedelics help you "die before you die"
The heart of the religious ritual is mysticism, argues Brian Muraresku in "The Immortality Key."
- The concept of "dying before you die" lies at the heart of religious tradition, argues Brian Muraresku.
- This secret ritual connects the Eleusinian Mysteries with the origins of Christianity.
- In "The Immortality Key," Muraresku speculates that psychedelic wine could have been the original Christian Eucharist.
After a 20-year ban on clinical psychedelics research, the U.S. government approved trials on DMT in 1990. At first, Rick Strassman, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, only wanted to study the physiological strain of injecting DMT: heart rate, blood pressure, and so on. Given that psychedelics had been contentiously demonized for a generation, he wondered if physical consequences were as dangerous as advertised.
LSD had been administered tens of thousands of times in the 1950s and early 1960s. Did it really fry your brain like eggs, as the Reagans so confidently declared?
Over the next five years, Strassman administered 400 doses of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to over 50 volunteers. It turned out that DMT, the fast-acting psychoactive ingredient in ayahuasca—the "soul vine" persists for hours only when blended with MAOIs to slow the breakdown of enzymes in your gut—has few negative effects. A longtime Zen Buddhist practitioner, Strassman noticed something else going on when over half of participants reported having profound religious experiences.
They were dying before dying.
Well, some of them were being visited by alien creatures, a phenomenon MAPS founder Rick Doblin possibly attributes to the "setting" part of "set and setting": tripping out in a sterile hospital room surrounded by clinicians in white lab coats certainly felt foreign, perhaps otherworldly. Other volunteers saw a beautiful light at the end of a tunnel and returned—a sensation noted in the ayahuasca literature for as long as we have records.
DMT is chemically related to serotonin and melatonin. The latter hormone is produced by the pineal gland, which is symbolically called the "third eye"—Descartes famously called it the "seat of the soul." Since every mammal that's been tested (including humans) produce endogenous DMT, could our third eye possibly release this structural analog of tryptamine at death? Is it a coincidence that the pineal gland, according to Strassman, appears in fetuses at 49 days, the exact duration of the "passage" of souls described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
Strassman admits this is speculation. The anecdotes are irrefutable, however. His clinical work led to Charles Grob's government-approved research on ayahuasca and MDMA in the 1990s, which opened the door to Johns Hopkins researchers studying psilocybin to treat the existential dread hospice patients encounter, which opened the floodgates to the psychedelic revolution occurring today.That initial Johns Hopkins study, which found that psilocybin (structurally similar to DMT) eases distress by helping initiates die before they die, helped give form to Brian Muraresku's 12-year journey while writing his debut book, "The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name."
Brian Muraresku explains the potential role of psychedelics in Christianity
Muraresku has been getting a lot of press since the book's publication, in part boosted by his appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast. The classicist speculates that the Christian Eucharist is rooted in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which may have involved the ceremonial ingestion of wine spiked with psychedelic ingredients. The idea of a psychedelic Christianity is not new, but Muraresku brings a detailed level of scholarship and compassion to the topic.
As he told me in a recent interview, the "immortality key" is not psychedelics, but the concept of dying before dying. He opens his book with a Greek inscription: "If you die before you die / You won't die when you die." Muraresku, a devout Catholic raised in the Jesuit tradition, kicks off the discussion with an atheist from the Johns Hopkins trial. Despite her lack of faith, she felt an "overwhelming, all-encompassing love" that helped her deal with the inevitable consequences of mixed-cell ovarian cancer—really, the inevitable consequences of being an animal bound to die.
The Hopkins study went mainstream when Michael Pollan wrote about it in the New Yorker. The results were stunning: 70 percent of participants felt a single dose of psilocybin produced the most meaningful (or among the top five) experience of their lives. Interestingly, the same result occurred after the famous Marsh Chapel experiment, when Timothy Leary and friends dosed Harvard Divinity School grad students with psilocybin; a quarter-century later, all but one rated the event in their top five.
Not only do you die before you die while under the influence of psychedelics, but you also gain a new perspective on life. The ego death that occurs during the ritual changes their orientation about existence. And what good is a religious experience if it can't be applied to living?
As Muraresku told me,
"[Psychedelics] is one tool in the Spiritual Toolkit. What I mean by 'the key' is in Greek, which is preserved at St. Paul's monastery: if you die before you die, you won't die when you die. That's the actual key. It's not psychedelics, it's not drugs; it's this concept of navigating the liminal space between what you and I are doing right now, and dreaming and death. In that state, the mystics and sages tell us, is the potential to grasp a very different view of reality."Muraresku taps into a growing consensus that humans are "wired" for mystical experiences. He points to lead Johns Hopkins researcher, Roland Griffiths, who believes that mysticism is included in our operating system at birth. You just have to turn it on. While the effects of psychedelics can be replicated through the more arduous path of meditation, in the right set and setting anyone can tap into mystical states of consciousness. Psychedelics provide a shortcut to these states.
Credit: Galyna Andrushko / Adobe Stock
Western religious leaders, especially those in Christianity and Islam, treat their prophets as standalone figures. The best you can hope for is being granted access to some special place after you die. Gnostics and Sufis—sects within those faiths that attempt to replicate their prophet's mysticism—are considered outcasts by mainstream religious figures. In some circumstances, they're outlawed, threatened, or even killed for their supposed heresy.
Sufis might spin for hours in ecstatic rapture to reach this mystical state, but as Muraresku's extensive research shows, psychedelics also tap into this "secret" knowledge that he believes to be at the heart of Christian—and if we extrapolate, religious—tradition. And to him, this is the essence of the religion, not a byproduct of the real faith.
"I didn't write this book to be anti-organized religion. In some cases, it's the exact opposite. In the intro, I mentioned Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who is a hero of mine. He talks about the tension between mystics and the dogma and doctrine of organized faith. I don't think you can have one without the other. The balance, as Brother David says, is to rediscover that original visionary power and live in it as a lived experience. This is what Joseph Campbell says of religion being a lived experience. We're talking about emotional potential. That's how the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines religion: these powerful, pervasive, long-lasting moods and motivations. That only happens when you're talking about something that gets inside of people's bones. That's what the mystical experience is; it's how these religions are born. Brother David says it's virtually impossible to start a religion without mystical experience, like Moses in the burning bush, Paul on the road to Damascus, or Peter, in Acts, caught up in a trance."
Campbell's conversation with Bill Moyers in "The Power of Myth" nicely ties together this idea:
"People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
The mythologist also advocated for a reformation of religion every generation so that the faith speaks to the times. This is effectively what Muraresku advocates for in "The Immortality Key": an honest conversation regarding the historical circumstances that birthed the world's most-followed religion in the hopes of applying the foundational lessons to our current reality. If that means a psychedelic ritual that shows you how to die before you die so that you may better know how to live, then it's time to rethink the role of the sacrament.
Mysticism is a universal phenomenon. The "eternal return" Mircea Eliade wrote about has been experienced throughout history in disparate regions of the world. As Strassman's and Griffiths's work shows, we retain the capability of dying before dying. In fact, current research on psilocybin, LSD, iboga, DMT, and ayahuasca show that these substances are helping people gain a perspective of their lives, be it in depression treatment, addiction recovery, or easing the pain of hospice care. A little mysticism goes a long way.
Let's move beyond this notion that mysticism only applies to a chosen few. In fact, let's reconsider the role of consciousness in general. Every religion has its own take on what happens after we die. Yet we have tools at our disposal to show us how to exist now: a living religion that speaks to the entire planet.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.