Mind-altering drugs: The magical history of LSD and mushrooms
Why did government officials stop psychedelics from reaching mainstream culture?
Michael Pollan is the author of How to Change Your Mind and seven previous books including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemmaand The Botany of Desire, which received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best non-fiction work of 2001, and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon.com. PBS premiered a two-hour special documentary based on The Botany of Desire in fall 2009.
MICHAEL POLLAN: I think like most people, I thought before I started this project that psychedelics were a product of the '60s. And the word psychedelic is such a '60s word. And it comes into our awareness with Timothy Leary and all of the counterculture interest in psychedelics. But in fact, there's a much older history. I mean, there's an ancient history. Psychedelics have been used in societies in Central America, and South America, and the Old World as well, for thousands of years. As a sacrament in religions, for divination and purposes like that. So there's an ancient history of psychedelics.
It goes way back. And then there is the kind of mid-century, 20th century history, which begins with Albert Hofmann, who is a brilliant chemist with the Sandoz Company in Switzerland. And he in effect invents LSD-- first in 1938, but he doesn't know what he has yet. He's looking for a drug to help women in childbirth. And he's working with something called the ergot fungus, which is a fungus that infects grain and, in fact, was responsible for various episodes of public madness throughout European history. It may have been involved in the Salem witch trials, too. People who eat this infected grain would have hallucinations and go kind of crazy.
They'd also get gangrene. It was a pretty nasty fungus. Ergotamine molecule and making all these derivatives from it. And the 25th-- LSD 25-- he tried on animals. It didn't seem to do anything-- put it on the shelf. But then in 1943, in the Middle of World War II, he got this premonition that this was a particularly interesting and beautiful And he should take a second look at it. And he resynthesized it and accidentally ingested some of it, perhaps through his skin or by touching to his eye, and realized that this was a powerful psychoactive molecule. He then decided to properly dose himself to see what was going on. And that was very common at the time, that people would dose themselves before they give it to anybody else. And he took 250 micrograms, which he thought was a very small dose, and for any other drug, it would be a very small dose, but LSD was immensely powerful.
And he has the first acid trip in history. And it's not a pleasant experience. He feels like he's going mad. The furniture is coming to life. He leaves his body and sees himself from the ceiling. And he tells his research assistant, this young woman, that he's got to get home because he was in the lab. And it's the war time. There's no gasoline, so they take a bicycle. And there's a famous bike ride, which is still commemorated here, 421 I think, The bike with his lab assistant. And he gets there, and he summons the doctor. And the doctor takes a look at him and says you're fine. Your pupils are dilated, but all your vitals are normal.
And as the experience wears off, he starts feeling really good, and he gets this powerful sense of well-being. And he goes out in the garden, and he describes the garden jeweled with dew and how it looked. He felt like Adam on the first day of creation, and that was the kind of ecstatic piece of the experience. So there you have it, the first acid trip. But he didn't know-- and Sandoz, the company he worked for, really didn't know what was it good for. How could you use this drug? How could you monetize it, as we would say? So Sandoz does something very interesting. They organize basically a crowd searched research project, where they offer LSD to any researcher, therapist, who wants it, for free. And really, all you needed was some good letterhead, and you could get a ton of Sandoz LSD for a period that And this led to this very fertile period of research in the '50s.
And again, most people now don't realize how much LSD research was going on. And so people used it in a variety of ways, and there was this effort to figure out Originally, it was called the psychotomimetic. That means a drug that mimics the effects of psychosis. And that's certainly what it looked like to a psychiatrist. I mean, the people on it were hearing voices, seeing things that weren't there, and feeling their personalities fall apart. And so it looked like a psychotic reaction. And that's what they thought it was. And the thinking was that maybe since a chemical could induce this experience, perhaps it's a chemical interpretation of schizophrenia.
And perhaps we could use this drug to understand the mind of the madman. That the therapist could really put him or herself in the shoes of someone With schizophrenia. So that was the original idea, but then some of those therapists started using the drug themselves-- again, normal at the time. And they were like, this isn't psychosis. This feels much better than psychosis. And this is something else. And so they tried to come up with A new paradigm of understanding. They threw out the word psychotomimetic. And they then moved to two ideas. One was pyscholytic, a mind loosening drug, and that at moderate doses-- 50, 75 micrograms of LSD-- someone could sit in a chair in their psychoanalytic session with a psychiatrist, and they would have unusually free access to their unconscious.
That they would feel less defended, more open. And indeed, this worked quite well. There was a real period in the 50s of pyscholytic psychotherapy going on, especially in LA. And a great many celebrities, people like Cary Grant, and Jack Nicholson, and André Previn, and a whole list of Of therapy. And they found it immensely useful. Cary Grant gave a famous interview about how it changed his life. It had helped him transcend his ego, and made him irresistible to women, And made him a much better actor. It doesn't sound like he totally transcended his ego. So that was one path. And then the other path came to be known as psychedelic therapy. This word is coined in 1957, I believe, by an English psychiatrist working in Saskatchewan named Humphry Osmond. And it means simply mind manifesting, the idea being that these drugs would amplify mental processes, give you access to the unconscious, and could be useful in a therapeutic way.
And they began treating alcoholics with it, and that was quite successful — people with depression, cancer patients struggling with anxiety and their fear of death. And actually, in the 1950s, LSD becomes — it's considered by many a psychiatric wonder drug that is getting better results than anything else out there. And just to give you an idea how widespread this was, there were 1,000 papers published on psychedelics, LSD, and psilocybin. A little later in the decade. There were 40,000 research subjects-- people who'd been dosed with it. And there were six international conferences on LSD. So here you have this very exciting, promising period of research that's going on without any government interference, without a lot of controversy.
But in the '60s, everything goes haywire. And what happens in the '60s is that basically the drugs escape the lab and become a very important ingredient In the creation of the counterculture. Timothy Leary has something to do with this. He is a psychologist who ends up at Harvard in 1960. But the summer before he gets there, he is introduced to psilocybin while in Mexico and has a profound experience. He was by the pool in Cuernavaca, and he said he learned more in those four hours on psilocybin than he learned in 15 years as a therapist, as a psychologist. And decides when he gets to Harvard, he's going to start something called the Harvard Psilocybin Project to research this promising drug. Psilocybin had come to the West only a few years before.
In 1955, an amateur mycologist by the name of R. Gordon Wasson, who happened to be a vice president of Chase Bank in New York, decided that he had heard rumors that there were mushroom cults using psychedelic mushrooms in religious observance in Central America. So he makes a dozen trips to Mexico looking for evidence of this, and discovers that it is indeed true, and finds a [SPANISH],, or a healer, in southern Mexico near Oaxaca willing to give him a psychedelic trip, a psilocybin trip. And he writes about this in the pages of Life Magazine-- big article with a very splashy headline on the cover, The Strange Growths that Give Men Visions. And it's like 17 pages in the magazine, and this really introduced most Americans to the idea of psychedelics The psychedelic mushrooms. So those are the mushrooms that Timothy Leary is exposed to.
He gets to Harvard. He starts doing research, loosely defined, into psilocybin, and then LSD when he gets access to that. This is going along fine, but like several people who studied psychedelics, Leary gets intoxicated by them, By the promise not just to heal, but to change society. And this is a very dangerous thought. And he basically comes to the conclusion that everybody should be on these drugs, that it really has enormous social benefit. So he starts giving them to poets, and writers, and musicians. And the pretense of research gradually fades. Eventually, some students are given the drugs, not by Leary, but by Richard Alpert, his collaborator who becomes Ram Dass later. Scandal erupts, and they're both tossed out of Harvard. And Leary then becomes a psychedelic evangelist. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Everybody should use acid. We can blow the mind of America. And it becomes very threatening to the powers that be. Richard Nixon called Leary the most dangerous man in America. He felt that LSD and other drugs were sapping the will of American boys To fight in Vietnam. And he may well have been right.
LSD encourages people to think for themselves, to not accept the frames of social values, the games that we play socially. And in important ways, LSD did fuel the counterculture and was very threatening to adult society and to the powers that be. So there is a backlash. And beginning around in the late '60s, you have the media, which had been very pro-psychedelic and amazingly positive press for psychedelics as a miracle cure, as something just really interesting, suddenly turns on it. And you start reading scare stories about people thinking they can fly and jumping off buildings and kids staring at the sun until they go blind. LSD can scramble your chromosomes, was a big headline at the time. Most of this is all disinformation, scare stories, but it had a big effect. And this moral panic took hold against psychedelics. By the end of the decade, they're made illegal-- schedule one drug beginning in 1970. The research gradually atrophies and dies by the mid '70s, early '70s, which is unprecedented in science, that you would have this incredibly promising avenue of scientific inquiry that's stopped for reasons that have nothing to do with the science.
But the funding dries up. People are embarrassed to study it. There's just such a stigma attached to psychedelics that we go through this All through this period, there is a handful Researchers, people who have not lost track-- partly because they're using them themselves-- with the promise of these drugs. And they plot, over a period of many years, a return to respectable scientific research. With some private funding from some people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, Johns Hopkins undertakes to begin studying psychedelics again-- Roland Griffiths is a very prominent drug abuse researcher, somebody who's looked at addiction, and does animal models of addiction, and expert on caffeine, in fact. He is introduced to the idea of psilocybin research. He gets interested because he had had his own mystical experience as a meditator. He got very interested in new meditation. And something happened during one of his meditations that caused him to question the material understanding of the mind and made him very curious about mystical experience.
He, at just a very fortuitous moment, is introduced to a group that wants to start this research. And he decides to do it. And he does a very interesting study that's not published in 2006 that says something like psilocybin can occasion mystical type experiences in healthy volunteers with enduring positive effects. Kind of a mind blowing study — I mean, scientists studying mystical experience. But they gave it to a bunch of healthy normals. And in about 2/3 of the cases, they had these powerful mystical experiences that did have these Gave them a sense of ego That they had this loss of their sense of individuality and this sense of profound and beautiful connection with something larger than themselves — nature, divinity — however they defined it — the universe, other people.
And they found that they could do this safely, that the drugs had very little biological risk. And in a controlled environment, which is to say with guides who are preparing you very carefully, telling you what to expect, sitting with you during the experience, and then helping you integrate or make sense of it after, that this could be done safely. And from that study come several others now looking at practical applications. First of those was a study that was performed there, and also at UCLA and NYU, to give psilocybin to people with cancer. Not to cure their cancer, but to help them deal with their anxiety, their depression, what the docs call their existential distress, and fear of recurrence, too, for people who had been treated.
And these people, in a study that was published in 2016, in about 80% of the cases, which is quite astounding, they found statistically significant reductions in standard measures of depression and anxiety, a bigger effect size than we have seen in virtually any other psychiatric intervention. And I think this is a very profound study. We have so little to offer people who are dying. And morphine might help them deal with pain, But doesn't help them deal with the mental suffering. I interviewed many people whose fear of death had disappeared, who acquired a sense of their self that became kind of broader and softer so that the loss of their own bodies, the death of themselves, wasn't as momentous. Because they were part of something larger and would continue to be.
Or people who acquired some sense of transpersonal consciousness and that perhaps their consciousness would survive their passing, Or people who really were able to break out of the repetitive And I interviewed one woman who went into her body during her trip, And she had had ovarian cancer that had been treated successfully, But she was so terrified of recurrence, she couldn't function. And she went into her body, as many of the cancer patients do imaginatively. And she saw this black cloud underneath her rib cage, which she knew Wasn't her cancer. It was in the wrong place. But she recognized it immediately, and she said, that's my fear. And she screamed at it. She said, get the fuck out of my body. And when she did, it just went up in a puff of smoke. And from that moment forward, she said she's Of her cancer recurring. And she said under psychedelics, she had the insight, which became quite profound for her, that she couldn't control her cancer. It was either going to come back or not.
But she could control her fear. And that cleaving of those two things gave her enormous freedom. So profound effects from a single application of a non-toxic drug is a big deal and I think portends of potential revolution in the way we practice mental health care. Other indications that the drugs show promise for-- and this is psilocybin mostly. That's the psychedelic that's been studied the most. Depression, anxiety, obsession, addiction-- There have been trials of alcoholics, of cocaine addicts and smokers-- All showing great promise. And there are future trials for eating disorders, And a new trial of obsessive compulsive is being planned. So this is a very exciting time. And again, the drugs still have to go further to prove themselves In larger groups of people. And we have to figure out exactly the optimal way to offer it to people.
But we've got some new tools, and we've had so little innovation In mental health care since the early '90s, Really since the introduction of the SSRI antidepressants, whose effectiveness is starting to fade and fail. And I don't think people fully realize how lousy the tools we have to treat psychiatric illness are right now and how many side effects they have. They put on weight. They cost people their libido. They're hard to get off of. And they only treat symptoms. And here we have something that appears to treat causes.
- In the '60s drugs escape the lab and become a very important ingredient In the creation of the counterculture. Timothy Leary, a psychologist at Harvard in 1960, has something to do with this.
- In Cambridge, he starts the Harvard Psilocybin Project which focuses its research into learning more about this promising drug. Because of its medicinal properties, and apparent positive effect on mental health, Leary believed that everyone should use acid, or psilocybin.
- Richard Nixon called Leary the most dangerous man in America. He felt that LSD and other drugs were sapping the will of American boys to fight in Vietnam.
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