Contemporary Psychedelic Science (a case study: the Hopkins psilocybin project)
The most credible psychedelic research in recent years has come out of Johns Hopkins University: the psilocybin experiments by Roland Griffiths, Bob Jesse, et al. Considering how contentious an area this is, it’s nigh impossible for someone invested in it (such as me) to avoid having mixed feelings about nearly any approach to its study. In this article, I will explore some of the tensions it draws out in me, profile the research they have been performing, and explain my thoughts on the subject. This should not be read as an attempt at an exhaustive review or an academic paper, but as a semi-informal (and semi-informed) opinion piece.
Psychedelic substances have been known, used and understood for thousands of years, but until the 1960s they were decidedly outside the awareness of mainstream white modern society. True to form, as soon as mainstream white people in North America learned about these powerful tools, they freaked out and banned not only their manufacture and sale, but even research into them, despite a growing canon of positive results and interesting data.
For the following decades, most of the research into psychedelics was done outside the scientific system, performed by researchers who felt psychedelic substances were important enough to risk their careers and even their personal freedom in order to study and disseminate them. Meanwhile, the academy remained silent. If you’re interested in psychedelic science, Stanislov Grof’s LSD Psychotherapy is the definitive summation of the research up until the recent resurgence, and lays out the best-practices later used in the Hopkins experiments.
Enter Roland Griffiths (pictured above). With an impressive CV long before his work on psilocybin, a brilliant scientist with an excellent reputation, Griffiths had made a career for himself proving how drugs are bad (or, uncovering the behavioural pharmacology of so-called drugs of abuse; unlike government pseudo-scientists, his ominous-sounding results are well-founded and accurate). His work has documented the addictiveness of benzodiazapines and cocaine, as well as outcomes of intravenous stimulant administration, and much more along those lines (he’s also one of the leading authorities on caffeine). It’s all excellent science, terribly dull to non-scientists, and generally reinforces the government’s anti-drug stance. Thanks to that track record, he became the first person in decades to receive permission to do legal experimentation with psilocybin (note: Bob Jesse of the Council on Spiritual Practices had more to do with initiating the project, but having Griffiths front and centre shored up its legitimacy. Huge accolades are due to both of them, and to the other researchers they’ve worked with).
My guess is that the administration thought Griffiths was going to do what he’d done previously, and show how bad drugs are for you. Instead, he proved that psychedelics can occasion remarkable and long lasting psychological benefit. Not only that, the experimental design was so above and beyond, so novel, that it made major waves in scientific circles not even for the results, but for how they were obtained (triple blind, innovative controls, etc). His 2006 landmark study thereby did the impossible: it showed the benefits of an illegal drug in a way that nobody could credibly argue against.
So… what were the results?
First, they proved that psilocybin can occasion mystical experiences. That is, not only do people claim to have mystical experiences when high, they also meet every established criteria we have for that, in about two thirds of cases in the setting employed. Then, in the follow-up interviews for that initial study, they also showed that a whopping 78% of the participants were happier and more content with their lives after even a single session with a psychedelic (more than had mystical experiences! However the two were strongly correlated; mystical experiences tend to co-occur with benefit, but don’t necessarily). Then they went on to show that these benefits can last at least 14 months. Just this week (end of September, 2011) they showed that these experiences also cause positive change in personality structures, even after the age of 30, which was previously thought to be impossible. Specifically, they showed an increase in the well established category of Openness, with no significant change in the other four NEO-PI categories. That means that psychedelics can change your personality, but only in the sense of making you more “open.” There were significant increases across the group that had mystical experiences in measures of each of the facets of Openness: Fantasy, Aesthetics, Feelings, Ideas and Values. The researchers even speculated that because Openness is correlated with fluid intelligence and cognitive ability, this may imply long term cognitive improvements(!!!), although this study did not analyse that directly.
Thanks to them, as of this week, I can now make declarative statements like “psychedelic experiences can leave you permanently more creative, curious and open-minded,” with solid experimental data to back that up. That’s pretty rad. I mean, fact is, I could have made that statement previously, but because my research is qualitative, a skeptic could interpret me as a biased druggie and discount my interpretation. Since I try to always try to have high standards, am careful in my wording, and have done non-trivial research using established methods (from ethnography, not experimental psychology), I find the ease with which my work can be discounted to be extremely annoying, but c’est la vie. The quantitative work Griffiths et al have been pumping out is delicious and I applaud them for it; it’s not their fault that people don’t trust anything that isn’t based on numbers, and their numbers are excellent.
The science here is straightforward: their work is both remarkable and top-notch, but doesn’t preclude the importance of qualitative work. Without prior qualitative work, they wouldn’t have known what was likely to produce good results. There’s no conflict here, just different methods reciprocally working together in a quest for Truth. Both approaches are important.
The politics, on the other hand, are not straightforward at all. Sufi philosopher Hakim Bey has said that psychedelics are not “the answer” so much as a question, to which the authorities replied with a resounding “NO.” Since the 1960s there’s been a low-grade war taking place all throughout the West, between the “establishment” and “counter-culture.” I would suggest that this is actually part of a longer and more insidious war our governments have been fighting against everyone who doesn’t fit their profile of “ideal citizens,” blacks in America and First Nations in Canada having suffered the most disproportionately from this. That, for example, the government would launch an inquiry, come to conclusions that conform to what should be blatantly obvious to even a casual observer, and then ignore those findings, refusing to implement any of the recommendations, is not surprising to Native people. Such is the case with the legal status of cannabis, as it is with Native land rights: the courts (or the senate committee, or whoever) conclude that what’s happening is unjust, but decades go by and any change is for the worse.
Given this history, why do we still even care what the establishment has to say about it? Why bother with official channels if the findings are always ignored, especially when doing so seems to delegitimise other important avenues? Why should we expect anything good to come of it, considering the track record?
As convenient as it is to blame bureaucrats and politicians for these problems, science has played its role as well. The standards of evidence in science produce powerful isomorphic pressures that result in the erasure of huge amounts of knowledge from every system other than itself. Canada’s First Nations have experienced that more than any other people. When we speak of scientific discoveries, we play into the Doctrine of Discovery that has flatly rejected the legitimacy of Native history and knowledge, with such tangible effects as the massive devastation of Bighorn Sheep in the North, or the present illegality of many long-standing herbal remedies. Is a finding only ever legitimate if it’s institutionally approved of by upper class white men? If we credit the Hopkins team with the observation that psychedelics can make you happier and more open-minded, we erase the thousands of years of history and knowledge within which these findings were perfectly obvious.
I decided years ago that I was no longer interested in kow-towing to the restrictions my university places on the kind of research I wish to do. My responsibility is not to the rules, but to you: human beings who might potentially read what I’ve written and maybe learn something useful from it. It seems that Griffiths, et al, chose exactly the opposite strategy: rather than just say “You guys are assholes… I’m out,” they decided to work within the system, follow all the rules, and publish solid data that us renegades can now use to legitimate our work in the face of mainstream skepticism, though we do so at the cost of affording authority to the very system we inconsistently seek to reject, and which consistently seeks to reject us.
As conflicted as I am about the appropriate role of science in studying mysticism and traditional medicine — acknowledging the incredible power of quantitative data to convince us of anything as long as there’s a graph on the same page — I really am a big fan of the Hopkins work. Their role, however, is not one of “discovery,” but of proof. Earlier, I described them as “the most credible,” and I stand by that: they positively reek of credibility, and their conclusions are as solid as any conclusions on such a tenuous topic can possibly be, even if what they proved was already known to qualitative researchers and folk practitioners alike.
PS: I’ve been asked not to share the official PDF of the new Openness study. How ironic is that? I’ve corresponded with both Bob Jesse and Katherine MacLean, the lead author on this new paper, and they both think it should be available at no cost, but have accepted the classist, exclusionary policies of their journal as a necessary evil. Psychedelics make you more Open; institutionalisation does not.