The Psychedelic Dante
In the current issue of the New Yorker, Michael Pollan writes about how scientists are once again researching the therapeutic use of psychedelics — psilocybin, LSD, etc. — to treat psychiatric conditions. It’s deeply fascinating stuff. Excerpts:
As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.
“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”
I was surprised to hear such unguarded enthusiasm from a scientist, and a substance-abuse specialist, about a street drug that, since 1970, has been classified by the government as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But the support for renewed research on psychedelics is widespread among medical experts.
Scientists find, unsurprisingly, that use of psychedelic drugs induces experiences comparable to those undergone by mystics. Many who use them report a sense of feeling at one with the universe, of holiness, of the sense that one is seeing beneath the veil of reality to the realm of the transcendent, et cetera. And it is not taken as a mere hallucination by most of them:
A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”
How are we to judge the veracity of the insights gleaned during a psychedelic journey? It’s one thing to conclude that love is all that matters, but quite another to come away from a therapy convinced that “there is another reality” awaiting us after death, as one volunteer put it, or that there is more to the universe—and to consciousness—than a purely materialist world view would have us believe. Is psychedelic therapy simply foisting a comforting delusion on the sick and dying?
“That’s above my pay grade,” Bossis said, with a shrug, when I asked him. Bill Richards cited William James, who suggested that we judge the mystical experience not by its veracity, which is unknowable, but by its fruits: does it turn someone’s life in a positive direction?
Two summers ago, when I went to Amsterdam to tell my dying friend Miriam goodbye, she sat with me in her apartment and told me she had recently been to see a shaman, who treated her with ayuahuasca. She had an intense psychedelic experience that had a lot to do with her fear and sadness over her disabled child, and her grief over having lost her mother to cancer. By the time Miriam finished the story, I was weeping over how much she had suffered over the years from things I did not know about. She was not a religious person — vaguely New Agey, but that’s about it — but told me that the ayahuasca experience was purgative, and that she no longer feared death. We had that strange “white moth” experience that I wrote about (if you haven’t read that, please do). Six months later, on Christmas day, Miriam died.
Why might these psychedelic experiences work? According to Pollan, neuroscientists have found that the brains of those under the influence of psychedelics, and of those advanced in the practice of meditation, experience a marked reduction of blood flow to the part of the brain associated with a sense of ego. Writes Pollan:
It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.
Carhart-Harris doesn’t romanticize psychedelics, and he has little patience for the sort of “magical thinking” and “metaphysics” they promote. In his view, the forms of consciousness that psychedelics unleash are regressions to a more “primitive style of cognition.” Following Freud, he says that the mystical experience—whatever its source—returns us to the psychological condition of the infant, who has yet to develop a sense of himself as a bounded individual. The pinnacle of human development is the achievement of the ego, which imposes order on the anarchy of a primitive mind buffeted by magical thinking. (The developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has speculated that the way young children perceive the world has much in common with the psychedelic experience. As she puts it, “They’re basically tripping all the time.”) The psychoanalytic value of psychedelics, in his view, is that they allow us to bring the workings of the unconscious mind “into an observable space.”
I have no problem believing that mystical experiences are caused by physical changes in the brain, either self-induced (via meditation or prayer) or chemically induced. The question remains: during these experiences, are you
a) seeing things as they really are;
b) seeing things that are entirely a hallucination;
c) or some combination of the two?
It seems to me that the answer depends on whether or not you are a philosophical materialist. A materialist has to choose b), or abandon his principles. I choose c), in part because I believe our brains are designed to filter out information that makes it hard for us to do the tasks necessary to getting on in the world. I don’t believe that “mind” is the same thing as “brain”; the brain, in my view, is like the laptop that picks up the wifi signals floating in the ether. It doesn’t produce consciousness, but rather filters it.
I also choose c) because of personal experience with a friend — and this is why I’m excited about the therapeutic possibilities of these drugs.
As a freshman in college, B. was very depressed (though not diagnosed as such). His girlfriend had broken up with him, and he was drinking way too much to dull the pain. That spring semester, he would go down to the pub and drink himself silly. He was caught up in dark, sad music, and couldn’t seem to break out of the fog.
Then a mutual friend of ours asked him to try LSD one weekend. B. was not a drug user, but at that time, he was in such a state that he was willing to do anything to think about something other than his own misery. It turned out to have been one of the most profound experiences of his life.
B. told his friends later that he had felt a sense of oneness of all things, the presence of God filling the universe, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for life. His depressed self, he said, had been turned relentlessly inward, and he was blind to the reality around him: that God exists, that He is love, that He is calling us all to unity with Him. He wasn’t a religious believer at the time, or at least not much of one, and he didn’t have a specifically Christian experience. He says that when the drug wore off, he had been — the phrasing here is mine — given a glimpse behind the veil, and seen things as they truly are. That was the end of his depression. He ended up becoming a Christian, and still is, thirty years later.
As B. saw it through the psychedelic experience, he had a choice: to turn outward, see the beauty of the world and God’s presence in it, because that was the truth; or stay mired in solipsistic, drunken, morose brooding. The fact that this choice occurred while under the influence of a drug did not make him — nor does it make me — doubt the truths revealed. It was as if B. had badly defective vision, but had been given a magic pair of eyeglasses that showed him what the world really looked like with corrected vision.
I absolutely do not want to give the impression that I am in any way endorsing recreational use of psychedelics. I knew others in college who used these drugs and did not appear to gain any sort of life-changing insights from them. They just had fun. I knew a couple of people who ruined their minds with them.
I also believe that psychedelics can be spiritually dangerous, because if they open you up to a different level of spiritual reality on the good side, they also open you up to the dark side. It seems to me risky to have a spiritual experience so profound that is unearned, that you haven’t prepared for, as a mystic would have prepared through years of prayer. A man who makes his millions slowly, through hard work, regards his fortune differently than a man who made his millions by winning the lottery. I could be wrong about this.
That said, I can’t deny the change I saw in B., and for that reason am excited to see medical science once again researching therapeutic uses for this category of drug. I believe that for many people, it can give them profound relief. If these drugs eventually become approved for use in controlled therapeutic sessions, good.
So what’s the Dante connection? Reading the Pollan article and thinking about my friend’s transformative experience thirty years ago with psychedelics, I kept thinking about Dante’s Paradiso, and how the poet’s imaginative description of heaven — as a realm of light, love, and harmony — is what B. says he sensed during his experience. The glimpse that the pilgrim Dante has of heaven in the poem changes his life, and causes him to return to the world moving in harmony with the God Who is love. Many people who have had life-after-death experiences come back changed in a similar way. This is a fair approximation of what happened to B., though again, it wasn’t specifically Christian.
The question remains: have B. and others experienced things as they truly are, or merely an illusion conjured by the brain? Does it matter? If these depressed people and others are having these life-changing positive experiences under the influence of psychedelics, should it matter if they are real, or a hallucination?
From a Christian point of view, I’m troubled by the questions psychedelics raise. My friend Miriam had a profound spiritual experience, one that left her unafraid of death. But it was not a Christian experience at all. Read this long account of an ayahuasca healing by Kira Salak; it appeared not in some New Age journal, but in National Geographic. She says she was “raised by fundamentalist atheists,” so she has no particular religious beliefs. It starts like this:
I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable. Suddenly, I found myself swirling down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. “You will never leave here,” they said. “Never. Never.”
I found myself laughing at them. “I’m not scared of you,” I said.
But the darkness became even thicker; the emotional charge of suffering nearly unbearable. I felt as if I would burst from heartbreak—everywhere, I felt the agony of humankind, its tragedies, its hatreds, its sorrows.
I reached the bottom of the tunnel and saw three thrones in a black chamber. Three shadowy figures sat in the chairs; in the middle was what I took to be the devil himself.
“The darkness will never end,” he said. “It will never end. You can never escape this place.”
“I can,” I replied. All at once, I willed myself to rise. I sailed up through the tunnel of fire, higher and higher until I broke through to a white light. All darkness immediately vanished. My body felt light, at peace. I floated among a beautiful spread of colors and patterns. Slowly my ayahuasca vision faded. I returned to my body, to where I lay in the hut, insects calling from the jungle.
“Welcome back,” the shaman said.
The next morning, I discovered the impossible: The severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished.
During her ayahuasca experience, she had what can only be described as an exorcism:
I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.
“Hamilton!” I belt out. “Help me!”
“On my way, Kira,” he says calmly. “Hang in there. Don’t give in to the fear.”
That’s the trick: Don’t give in to it. But it’s much easier said than done. I must tell it that I’m stronger. I must tell it that it has no effect upon me. But it does. I’m terrified. The darkness presses against me; it wants to annihilate me.
Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off and is sent spiraling away. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.
“Tell the spirits to leave you with ease,” Hamilton says to me.
“They won’t!” I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en mass from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. All I know is that one after another, demonic-looking forms seem to be pulled from my body. I’ve read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya—a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.
Haunted mountains. Demonic hitchhikers. Who would believe this? Yet on and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chakapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me.
The visions fade. My body stops shaking. Hamilton takes his seat again, and Rosa releases her grip on me. I examine the vomit bucket with a flashlight: Black specks the size of dimes litter orange-colored foam. The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.
You really have to read the whole thing, especially at the end, when she believes she meets God. Note the last sentence, too. This is not from some New Age crackpot, but from an experienced travel journalist. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever read, and I have to tell you, it roughly approximates Dante’s vision of unity with God.
I wish I knew what to make of this. B. described nothing in his experience like ayahuasca experience. His sounds like Pabst Blue Ribbon compared to ayahuasca’s 200 proof grain alcohol. No demons, no vision of God, none of that — just sort of like living inside an Impressionist painting, and with a blissful sense of unity with God and the universe. My friend Miriam’s experience, though, was a lot more like Kira Salak’s, though without demons. It was extremely painful to confront the heart of her fears, but she emerged from it at peace and ready to meet her mortality.
In Miriam’s case, I would love to say that she had a vision of Christ, or the Virgin Mary, or something, anything, Christian. But she did not. Mind you, this does not weaken my Christian faith at all, but it does make me contemplate the mystery of it all. You could write off Miriam’s tale as something that emerged solely from her subconscious, but in Kira Salak’s case, there are elements that cannot be explained that way. Both an orthodox Christian like me, and an orthodox materialist would be very hard pressed to put Kira Salak’s story inside our conceptual frames.
One more note: I’ve told the story here before about the time my son Lucas was a baby, just learning to talk. We were in church, and I had taken him just outside the main sanctuary because he was restless and fighting off sleep. As we stood behind glass walls watching the mass, which we could not hear, Lucas in my arms, he lifted his head from my shoulder, extended his right arm, and said, “Angel!” He pointed at something I couldn’t see, and followed, with his finger and his eye, a point in space as it moved out over the congregation. “Angel!” he said again, then put his head on my shoulder and went to sleep.
I believe he saw an angel. In our church now, we have a baby who will, at times, fix her eyes on something definite, and follow it around the room with a gaze of wonder. Several of us have noticed this. This is not at all uncommon in churches, I find. I have always believed, kind of as a folk belief, that very young children can see things that we older people cannot. I didn’t think of why this might be until I read Alison Gopnik’s remark that the brains of the very young are tripping all the time. And, to go back to Dante, if the absence of egotism signifies the bliss of heaven, the overwhelming totality of egotism signifies the torture of hell. In Dante, the damned are condemned because they loved themselves above all, and for eternity, they are imprisoned in their own egos.
Anyway, ayahuasca is a much different order of psychedelic experience, it appears, than psilocybin, which is what the scientists in Michael Pollan’s essay are working with. What I would like to know from you readers is: what do you think psychedelic drugs tell us about the nature of consciousness and reality?