For some, the term ‘psychedelics’ may illicit images of the strung-out hippie at 1969 Woodstock or the madman hallucinating, on the edge of losing self-restraint. Yes, like many other drugs or tools developed by mankind, psychedelics are a double-edged sword. Used in an improper context amongst individuals with specific mental illnesses, these drugs may exacerbate symptoms and lead to erratic behaviour. However, a renewed interest and modern renaissance of research is emerging about the potential of psychedelics to address a host of mental illnesses ranging from depression, end-of-life anxiety and addiction. Used with caution, psychedelics can be important tools for psychiatry and self-exploration, and their use extends far beyond their stereotypical image of a ‘party drug.’
Psychedelics have been described as ‘telescopes for the mind’ giving users the ability to explore the depths of their subconscious. Through this voyage people can escape the every day realities of their normal waking consciousness, and gain new perspectives and insights into how they view the world. Few personal accounts of psychedelic use have received more notoriety than that of the English intellectual Aldous Huxley. Describing his experience on mescaline, Huxley writes in The Doors of Perception,
To filter the immense amount of incoming information from the external environment, our brains have evolved to become ‘prediction machines.’ That is, they attempt to make sense of the present moment by comparing it to similar experiences in the past, and making predictions into how events will unfold. While this may be evolutionary efficient for our species, it can inhibit us from experiencing the joys of the present moment, leaving us in a perpetual state of anxiety.
What psychedelics seem to do is to momentarily alter our perceptions of reality. They ‘shake the snow globe’ in our minds suspending the mental habits and ruminations we have developed over the years. That is to say these experiences allows us to view things from a different light, through a new lens, and to redefine our associations we have with our thoughts. In fact, in one study 66% to 86% of these participants in these psychedelic trials noted that their experience was one of the most meaningful in their lives These altered states of consciousness can lead to can lead to feelings of awe and wonder. As Michael Pollan eloquently notes in How to Change your Mind,
One of the things that commends travel, art, nature, work, and certain drugs to us is the way these experiences, at their best, block every mental path forward and back, immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful—wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.
I want to explore what the recent literature in psychology and neuroscience are telling us about the value of psychedelics in mental health as well as the insights they can provide into spirituality. I am not writing from practical experience, and the research does make it clear that the psychedelics are not for everyone. Moreover, the experience is contingent on an individual’s own inner mental landscape, and the ‘set’ and ‘setting’ of the event.
However, perhaps what psychedelics can do for us is change our glasses of perception, open new doors and allow us to get a glimpse of new alternatives modes of consciousness which we could strive towards. And maybe, just maybe, they can help us change our minds.