Hallucinogens: A Way to Soothe Mental Illness, Even Get Ahead

Psychedelics came en vogue in the 1960s and since then have been maligned as inducing psychosis. Today, some evidence suggests that tiny doses of these drugs may be useful for curing psychological disorders such as depression, PTSD, and social anxiety, among others. But more research is needed and there are hurdles to overcome. 


Psychedelics have been with humans for over two millennia. Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape theory,” postulates that the development of language may have started with our ancient ancestors taking psychedelics, as they have the propensity to make one talkative and interested in sounds.

Shamans and medicine men of Africa and the America’s have used hallucinogens for thousands of years in religious practices—to divining prophecy, as a rite of passage, and more. These have been so paramount to certain cultures that Native Americans in the West have won court cases to be allowed to continue their use in rituals. Some anthropologists say these ancient cultures respect for such substances, within the confines of ritual, have safeguarded their users from addiction, and allowed for great insights. As for ancient civilizations, it is thought that the soma beverage of the Vedas, the sacred texts of Hinduism, contained psilocybin or “magic” mushrooms as an ingredient.

In Western society how hallucinogens were regarded has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Ergot is a parasitic fungus that grows on rye and rye bread which can cause hallucinations. During the Black Death and again in the 16th and 17th centuries, bouts of insanity, which were sometimes interpreted as witchery or demonic possession, was often caused by ergot poisoning. In Medieval times and during the Renaissance, ergot victims suffered from what was known as St. Vitus dance, or the Dance of Death. The latter can be found throughout medieval iconography. Some historians have linked certain weather conditions and the likelihood of ergot with the witch hunts of Europe and colonial America—most famously in Salem.

The Salem witch trials may have been from accidental ergot poisoning.

Fast forward to the 20th century, and we have Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman who in 1938 created a synthetic version of ergotamine that within a few decades would be all the rage with young hippies. He accidently discovered lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), trying to find a drug that stimulated breathing and circulation. While experimenting on himself, he found that he experienced incredible and sometimes horrific hallucinations. Soon the U.S. government became interested. From 1953 to 1964 the CIA conducted a series of LSD experiments as part of Project MK Ultra. In this program, American citizens were given different biological and chemical agents, often without their knowledge. The documents surrounding this program were destroyed before a 1973 Senate investigation came underway.

The program included Secret LSD experiments which took place at 30 universities. Author Ken Kesey was one such subject. Later on, he experimented with mescaline while conducting his nighttime duties at a psychiatric institution, at which he worked, and wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. As for the CIA experiments, many speculate that they were to see whether or not a person would be more susceptible to hypnosis, in order to brain-wash them into becoming a CIA assassin. Project MK Ultra became the basis of The Manchurian Candidate and George Clooney’s character in Men Who Stare at Goats.

The counterculture movement of the 1960’s gleaned onto psychedelics, and many artists over the years admit to being inspired by them. Two camps quickly formed. Those in the quite, contemplative Eastern aesthetic flocked to Dr. Timothy Leary, who took LSD with groups of followers to accentuate meditation. A more ecstatic group admired Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters, whose antics are laid bare in, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Concurrently, in the 1950’s thru the early 1970’s, medical experiments using psychedelics to treat addiction and mental illness were considered cutting-edge.  

LSD and other psychedelics were thought mind-expanding in the 1960’s. That attitude may be back.

The 1980’s brought the War on Drugs and so the end of such research. Some say the baby boomers who embraced psychedelics in the 60’s, didn’t want their kids doing them. But now that they are older and have fond memories of their former years, public opinion on has once again shifted. In the last two decades or so, a resurgence of research in LSD and psilocybin—the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, has occurred.

A 2006 study out of the University of Arizona found that psilocybin helped reduce the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Research at both UCLA and NYU have helped relieve the anxiety of cancer patients using psilocybin. A small 2014 study found that LSD reduced feelings of anxiety permanently from those suffering anxiety disorder. A British study last year found that psilocybin decreased depression symptoms without any serious side effects. Other studies have shown remarkable results.

In one, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, 10 alcoholics given psilocybin. It reduced cravings even months after treatment. In a 2014 Johns Hopkins study 15 smokers were given psilocybin. 12 out of 15 remained smoke free at the six month follow-up. There is some evidence that the hallucinogenic drink Ayahuasca can help with anxiety and depression, according to Evan Wood. He is a psychiatric researcher at the University of British Columbia. Also MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy, may help ease the symptoms of PTSD.

Wood says psychedelics allow an individual to feel a spiritual or mystical experience. They often have profound realizations about themselves, and it is through this that they are able to transform, and drastically change their behavior. Wood says the standard procedure for conditions like depression or anxiety, or even addiction is certain prescription drugs. These are considered lifelong chronic conditions. With psychedelics however, one dose is effective long-term. Though Drug War propaganda would have you believe that such drugs induce permanent insanity, a recent review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found no lasting effects.

Dr. Timothy Leary proponent of LSD in the 1960’s.

Some patients today, who struggle with anxiety, depression, or even things like migraines, are taking matters into their own hands and microdosing. This is not “tripping” but taking a tiny sliver of the recommended dose in order to get an uplifting effect, without any significant side effects. No hallucinations are induced. Psychologist James Fadiman is a pioneering researcher in psychedelics who came up with microdosing. To do it with LSD for instance, one would take one-tenth of a normal dose, around 10-20 micrograms, rather than the 100-200 micrograms needed to “trip.” The microdose would be ingested once every four days in the morning. Just take it and go about your day.  

Some patients are doing it to alleviate anxiety or depression. They believe this type of treatment is better than the current pharmacological approaches. A writer for the website Refinery 29 recently wrote about microdosing psilocybin mushrooms for migraines.  She takes 1/100t of a dose, about 0.2-0.5 grams. A growing number of psychedelic enthusiasts are even microdosing to get creative ideas or solve problems in the work space. Wouldn’t the hippies be horrified? Rolling Stone recently uncovered this trend among young professionals in Silicon Valley.

Still, one must understand that currently there is limited research and most of the studies have been small. Another problem studying such things as LSD, such a low dose in the system is hard to detect, and so it’s effects difficult to objectively deduce. According to Fadiman, when coupled with yoga or meditation, troubled patients say with depression or anxiety sleep better, eat better, and generally feel better after taking psychedelics. Fadiman has gathered hundreds of testimonials, and is aiming for an FDA approved study. Even with some promising data in hand, most medical professionals say that hallucinogenics are dangerous and highly illegal.

Even so, with the opioid addiction epidemic raging, and the prevalence of depression and other serious disorders, many believe that microdosing psychedelics may be the future of mental health and addiction remediation, and the medical community need only shed their prejudices and catch up.

To learn more about the so-called psychedelic renaissance click here: 

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.