A Trippy Treatment

Editorial, 9th September 2018

Ever since the dawn of mankind, man has been at war with microbes, and has always fallen short of becoming the triumphant victor. There was a point in time when diseases like smallpox caused large number of fatalities around the world, for man believed that acquiring a disease was some sort of holy intervention. Those were definitely the dark ages of medicine, as not only were we ignorant to the effects of microbes, but we also gave more weight to the fabrication of philosophical theories as compared to observation. For example, Galen, a philosophical pathologist, put forth a theory sometime during 200 A.D. of blood circulations based on the colour of your bodily fluids, with red (RBCs) being the representation of life, and black being the negativity in life. Though this was partially correct, this theory not only validated intravenous leeching, a counterproductive treatment, but also happened to gravely hinder mankind’s progress in the field of medicine, as it took more than a millennium (1221 years to be exact) for someone to prove it incorrect. It makes one wonder if it were medicine or quackery?

As years flew by, man slowly started to make progress in the field of medicine. We went from making a person go through the traumatic experience of getting his body sawed open without anesthesia, in the name of surgery, to fabricating a beating heart from scratch. But this process of growth has definitely not been a smooth ride. Throughout the years we have had many obscene things done to us in the name of treatment. For a large part of history, natural ways of treatment and folk medicine, which involved usage of herbs and other naturally available substances like basil or thyme, was quite popular amongst the masses. The people who practiced folk medicine were given various names such as healers or shamans. In the 20th century, as a last resort to breach the market, allopathic medicine could only offer petroleum or opium drugs as a counter to shut down folk medicine. Therefore, during this era, the faith that people had in folk medicine took a beating, and folk medicine became viewed globally as the medicine of the poor. It was believed that opium could cure a large variety of illness and hence was marketed in the form of chocolates for kids. Even big names like Coca-Cola mixed opium in their products. This resulted in many housewives and kids becoming victims of substance abuse. Once the government took notice of these activities, it immediately initiated a war on drugs, labelling drugs like opium illegal. During the same timeline, the usage of psychedelics was also declared harmful and was taken down. But even though opium had been banned, it is still used as a painkiller during major surgical operations. This should make one wonder if there could be other uses of opium or psychedelics in the field of medicine.

Psychedelics are a class of hallucinogens, i.e, these are substances which make one hear and see things that aren’t actually there. They basically alter the cognitive and perceptive parts of the human brain. The usage and even possession of psychedelics is illegal and socially looked down upon in most countries. Although the length of the psychedelic trip, the period during which you hallucinate, largely depends upon what and how much one intakes, all the trips have a common effect on a brain’s neural activity. The results of brain imaging studies showed that when an individual has been administered with psychedelics, the functioning of his brain is less constrained, i.e, a person’s thought process is malleable and he could look at the world in a totally new light. Another test conducted at John Hopkins University, showed that most people put the psychedelic trip as one of the most positive and life altering experience of their lives . It is believed that this unusually heightened state of mind causes you to look at the world in a more clear way and as a possible outcome of this phenomenon, people have said that the experience has made them very self-aware and introspective. Scientists have noticed this and have begun conducting research on the therapeutic applications of psychedelics.

Psychedelics have been used in medical treatment for a very long time. For example, psilocybin mushrooms were used in the religious rites of the indigenous Mazatec people of Mexico. It is estimated that close to four thousand psychologists and psychiatrists had used psychedelics in practice before they became illegal. In fact, it is still used for healing in many cultures of the South and Central America. During the 50s and 60s, psychedelics had piqued the interest of many researchers, the most famous being Timothy Leary, a psychologist at Harvard university. Leary describes his first psychedelic trip as an experience which taught him more about psychology in five hours than what he had learnt in fifteen years. He also stated that the experience had opened his eyes to the possibilities of the human brain. He soon started conducting research along with his colleague Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) on the therapeutic effects of psychedelics. The Concord Prison Experiment, headed by Leary, had evaluated the effects of psilocybin assisted psychotherapy on the rehabilitation of prisoners. The prisoners were given psilocybin and were made to experience the ‘trip’ before going through regular therapy. As a result, 36 prisoners repented their actions and swore to give up the life of crime. The recidivism (recommitting a crime) rate for this project was a whopping 20 percent as compared to the average 60 percent. Leary was so overwhelmed by the effects of psychedelics that he soon started producing music that promoted psychedelics. He soon became a household name and the poster-face of psychedelics. It is believed that he, unknowingly, had become the role model of many people which led to a boom in the usage of psychedelics. Soon, the government named psychedelics a “Schedule 1” drug, effectively limiting further medical research in the field. Ironically, this lead only to an increase(by 140%) in the use of psychedelics during the 70s.

The main drawback that modern psychotherapy faces is the incapability of a patient to tolerate the emotional stress that comes with the medication. Since the psychedelic trip is usually a jaunty experience, it makes it a direct solution. Scientists theorise that psychedelic assisted therapy will lead to the cure of many treatment-refractory psychiatric disorders including PTSD. Researchers have not limited the applications to only assisting psychotherapy; psychedelics are also being used to cure cases of substance abuse with mind-bogglingly low relapse rates. In a study conducted by Johnson and his colleagues to study the effects of psychedelics to curb the usage of tobacco, participants who were administered minimalistic doses of psilocybin resulted in an eighty percent seven-day point prevalence abstinence after a 6-month follow-up (not smoking a cigarette for seven consecutive days). Although it is not clear how the healing effect of psychedelics comes into play it is believed that the brain has a default mode network, i.e our brain’s auto-pilot mode, and psychedelics seem to quieten these areas down, resulting in the person thinking in different ways. This has the effect of keeping addictions at bay and helping cope with depression. MDMA, a psychedelic popularly known as ‘ecstasy’, decreases the activity of our brain’s amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for the control of emotions including anxiety and sadness) and increases the activity of the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for dealing with our emotions with rational thinking). This results in the decrease of negative emotions and also helps our brain deal with these emotions.If after meticulous research, treatment methods assisted by psychedelics are deemed viable, psychedelics would become the penicillin of the 21st century.

“The real justification for psychedelics is that they feed new data into your model” – Terene McKenna

Even though a lot of researchers have stated that psychedelics are not psychologically addictive, the intake of psychedelics is still a social stigma. Psychedelics definitely do have their side effects.
Hippocrates rightly said that “Everything in excess is opposed by nature”. But if proper research were conducted and doses were administered appropriately, the benefits offered by psychedelics would surely outweigh the side effects, and bring about a revolution in modern medicine. So, it is upon us to not be the Galen of the 21st century and align our moral compasses in the right direction and look past the mistakes we have committed and encourage the research of psychedelic substances.

“Not realising the future prospects of psychedelics is like not being able to see higher truth in s**t” — Hippocrates