Too bad Alex Shulgin didn’t live to see this article in the New Yorker. It’s on the reviving field of psychiatric treatment using psychedelic drugs. This was an active area in the 1950s and 1960s, as many people know, although some of what people think they know about that era is not true. But it’s been dormant for some time, due to legal, cultural, and funding difficulties. The overselling of the original work didn’t help much, either:
The first wave of research into psychedelics was doomed by an excessive exuberance about their potential. For people working with these remarkable molecules, it was difficult not to conclude that they were suddenly in possession of news with the power to change the world—a psychedelic gospel. They found it hard to justify confining these drugs to the laboratory or using them only for the benefit of the sick. It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science. He came to see science as just another societal “game,” a conventional box it was time to blow up—along with all the others.
Some of the patients being treated in these new studies are in serious psychological distress – people dealing with major depression or with severe cancer. Other groups are looking at the possibility of addiction treatment. Even normal volunteers, though, rank their experience with (say) psylocibin as extremely signficant and even life-changing.
As a confirmed non-partaker, I’m of two minds about this. I have no doubt that these people are reporting accurately, and that their outlook on life has indeed changed. For people with addiction or depression, this could indeed offer a “reset button” and a way out of their diseased state. At the same time, I don’t actually believe that people taking a hallucinogenic drug are experiencing anything other than the reality of an oddly firing set of synapses – no alternate planes of reality, no encounters with supernatural beings, no removal from the spacetime continuum. I’m perhaps not a good person to ask, though, since I’ve been described by at least one close acquaintance as “annoyingly stable”. (Philosophically, though, it’s true that our only contact with reality is through our mental states and interpretation of our sensory data, which leads – and has led – to a number of interesting and unresolvable arguments).
There are practical issues and difficulties with using such compounds for therapy, but when you think about it, our existing pharmacologic resources mostly depend on altering levels of and response to serotonin, dopamine, and the other neurotransmitters anyway. Psilocybin is merely a more dramatic way of altering those same things. There are uncounted numbers of people out there in psychological misery, sometimes for easily understandable reasons, and sometimes for no reason that anyone can determine. If a hallucinogen can help them, then I think that’s a good thing, and I’m glad that it’s being investigated in a systematic way. From first principles, I don’t see how one can rule in Prozac and rule out psilocybin.