We are in the midst of a resurgence of interest in psychedelics. Studies into their effectiveness in treating mental disorders are being fast-tracked by the FDA. Decriminalization and legalization efforts are succeeding. Perceptions about the acceptability of psychedelics are changing. Like any emerging technology, the narrative around them will probably change as we figure out what place we think they should have in society. Personal computers were once much more explicitly tied to mind expansion, and of course they do expand our minds—but that’s not something that we go around every day having our minds blown about. Psychedelics will probably go through a similar cultural narrative.
This post is intended to be a good starting point for people who are curious about psychedelics and would like to be more informed about them. It’s about the classical psychedelics, psilocybin and LSD, which are similar enough for the purposes of this post that they can be lumped together. Consider this a brief, pragmatic user’s guide to potentially very powerful tools.
What psychedelics are not
Psychedelics aren’t inherently dangerous. Psychedelics have little to no neurotoxicity, aren’t addictive, won’t make holes in your brain, and aren’t engines for inducing permanent schizophrenia. Physiologically, they are considered safer than most other recreational drugs. A 2016 survey found incidents of risky behavior associated with taking the drugs, but that risks were very low if the drugs were taken in controlled settings by screened individuals.
Psychedelics aren’t magic. They almost certainly aren’t buttons that will fix any given mental disorder. They probably won’t single-handedly usher in your utopia of choice.
What psychedelics can be
Psychedelics can be medicine. There is strong evidence that psilocybin is useful for treatment-resistant depression and major depressive disorder, which has led to two Breakthrough Therapy Designations over the course of those clinical trials by the FDA (summary). Other studies have results that indicate that psychedelics might be able to treat alcohol and cigarette addiction.
Psychedelics can be productivity tools. The evidence that microdosing is more effective than a placebo at increasing productivity is not yet in. There are lots of anecdotes about this being true, and some surveys have found positive benefits but skepticism is warranted.
Psychedelics can be microscopes for the soul, periscopes for the subconscious, and telescopes for the superego. This, in my opinion, is what psychedelics do best. They can be amazing tools for exploring how you see your place in the universe, and what you personally find meaningful in life.
Screen yourself. Are you a child, or does your family have a history of schizophrenia? Then psychedelics are not for you. Is your life very unstable at the moment, or have you recently gone through something emotionally traumatic? Then consider that now might not be a good time for a full-on psychedelic trip.
Ask yourself if you have the right set and setting. Set and setting are about the context in which you are thinking about taking a trip. What is your mindset? Do you have expectations about what you think this experience should be, like the expectation that it will be enjoyable, mind-blowing, or fix something you think is broken with you? Consider letting those expectations go. What is the setting you’re thinking of taking the drug in? You’re likely to be much more sensitive to stimuli, so I highly recommend having a safe space you can go to get away from any loud sounds, flashing lights, and other people who aren’t involved in your trip.
If you’re nervous, consider starting small. Take half of a dose, or a quarter, to see if you feel panicky about the fact that you are taking this drug. Maybe find someone to sit with you through the experience who you trust.
When you’re tripping, let yourself have the experience that you are having. Unless you are putting yourself or others in physical danger, try to accept whatever you are feeling or experiencing. Remember that difficult is not bad, and a hard experience involving unsettling, frightening, or confusing things might be valuable to learn from later. Remember that this is temporary. If hearing that makes you nervous, start small!
If you are sitting for someone else who is having a hard time, don’t try to “talk them down” from it. This is one of the principles of the Zendo Project, which is a psychedelic support facility that trip-sits for people at festivals. Try to help them connect with the experience they’re having. Or consider just sitting in silence, letting them know that you are there for them if you need them. Remind them that this is temporary, and normal reality will be waiting for them when they are done.
Your reading assignments
If you learned a lot from this post and would like to know a lot more, you should read Michael Pollan’s fantastic book How to Change Your Mind.
If you are interested in a model for safe psychedelic voyaging, your assignment is to read the Materials and Methods section of the 2006 study Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.
If you’re interested in thinking about how capitalism might change our relationship with psychedelics, read We Will Call It Pala.
If you’re interested in trip-sitting, check out TripSit.me, the Zendo Project, or the Manual of Psychedelic Support.
If you want to explore other research into psychedelics, check out the MAPS research portal.
Happy Bicycle Day!