Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
What will 'psychedelic therapy' look like when it's legalized?
Psychedelic therapy will become legal in Oregon in 2023. That's thanks largely to a renaissance of psychedelic research that's changing attitudes on the substances' medical potential.
- In November, Oregon voted to legalize psilocybin therapy.
- Psilocybin is already being used in clinical research settings, but it remains a controlled substance on the federal level.
- At the 2020 Web Summit, two experts in the field of psychedelic research and therapy shed light on what the future of psilocybin therapy might look like.
For millennia, humans have been using psychedelic drugs for medicinal and spiritual purposes. But today, most nations have criminalized psychedelics, including the U.S., where psilocybin and LSD are classified as Schedule 1 drugs, defined as having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
But attitudes on psychedelics are shifting. That's thanks largely to a renaissance of psychedelic research that's been gaining steam since the 2000s, producing startling studies showing how psilocybin (and other psychedelics) can help alleviate mental health problems like major depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders.
In November, Oregon made history by passing Measure 109, which legalized the use of psilocybin in therapeutic settings. That's a step beyond measures in other progressive American cities, like Denver and Oakland, which have decriminalized the substance but stopped short of allowing people to consume it.
What it means for Oregonians is that, starting as early as 2023, adults 21 and older will be able to go to a clinic and consume psilocybin under the supervision of a licensed therapist, who has to obtain the psilocybin from a licensed manufacturer.
So, what exactly will psychedelic therapy look like, and why would people seek it out?
Those questions were explored in a recent presentation at the 2020 Web Summit by Ekaterina Malievskaia, co-founder of the mental health company Compass Pathways, and Kelsey Ramsden, the COO of Mind Cure, which identifies, develops, and commercializes new mental health products.
What psychedelic therapy could look like
Ramsden said a psychedelic therapy session might look like this: You enter "a lovely place that looks much like your living room with some lovely people [licensed therapists] who are going to sit with you for the duration of your treatment," and then you're administered psilocybin. You might sit or lie down with a mask over your eyes, potentially listening to some music, while being supported by the professionals in the room until the experience winds down.
This session would be followed by an "integration period," which would take place in the days and weeks following the psilocybin experience. The Entheogenic Research Integration & Education (ERIE) defines integration as "the process by which the material accessed and insights gained in a [psychedelic] experience are incorporated over time into one's life in a way that benefits the individual and their community."
What kinds of insights might you gain? It's hard to say, as everyone's experience varies, and scientists are still working to understand exactly how psychedelics interact with the brain.
"Because these experiences are so unusual, it's very difficult to explain what to expect, what people are going to be experiencing," Malievskaia said. "I think only with advancement in neuroimaging, and advancement in different scientific techniques, that we started understanding how they actually work, and we can show how they work, and that sort of paradoxically demystifies these mystical experiences."
How psilocybin acts on the brain
Malievskaia noted that psilocybin works primarily on the brain's serotonin system, attaching to specific serotonin receptors that trigger a cascade of different neurological events. These serotonin receptors are densely expressed in a system of connections called the "default mode network" (DMN).
"The DMN is not an anatomical structure in the brain," Malievskaia explains. "It's a system of functional connections that forms throughout people's lives based on their life experience, life events, their learning, their environment. So essentially, it's a collection of patterns — cognitive, behavioral, emotional patterns — in response to environmental stimuli. And we associate these patterns, perhaps sometimes, with a sense of self, or sense of ego."
"So, when psilocybin binds to these [serotonin] receptors, it downregulates the DMN, and temporarily, people are lifted out of their ego. In these profound psychedelic experiences, they're able to look at their life situation — their conflicts, their personal narratives — from a different vantage point."
"And with skillful support, and in carefully controlled, supported environments, they're able to process traumatic events, memories, and generate more insights. With subsequent skillful integration, they're able to embody those insights, and that could lead, potentially, to changes in unhelpful behavioral patterns."
Neuroimaging studies suggest that the DMN is active during much of our experience, particularly when we're doing repetitive tasks, worrying, daydreaming, or going over memories. It's something like an "auto-pilot" mode that helps the brain save energy. But for people suffering from, say, depression or anxiety, this function can make it difficult to overcome a mental-health rut.
That's why psychedelics might function as something like a "reset button": By quieting activity in the DMN, psychedelics may help the brain break free of its usual patterns, allowing other regions of the brain to begin "talking" to each other, creating new connections. What's interesting is that studies suggest these beneficial effects persist long after the drug wears off — for months, in some cases.
Given popular misconceptions about psychedelics, Ramsden said it's important for researchers and psychedelic therapy advocates to be thoughtful in how they discuss emerging therapies, and she reiterated that the new wave of psychedelic research and therapy is grounded in real science.
"What we're not talking about is this idea of self-medicating, or going on these wild trips," she said. "This really is a practice with deep scientific rigor, with high-efficacy outcomes."
- From mushrooms to ecstasy, a renaissance in psychedelics research ›
- It's time to integrate psychedelics into therapy - Big Think ›
- Psychedelics may be a powerful treatment for alcoholism - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.