Erik Davis reports on the latest in psychedelic research

Erik Davis says: I recently published my first column for Aeon Magazine's online site, a "post-secular" take on the current wave of psychedelic research. Without plunging into woo, the article attempts to chart the liminal zones that lie beyond brain-based reductionism. It seemed a good piece for Aeon, a new British outfit that is charting a very interesting zone between science, religion, culture, and good writing.

Studies recently carried out at Yale, and published last month in the journal Science, have confirmed earlier reports that ketamine offers remarkable, nearly instantaneous relief for people who suffer from forms of major depression impervious to other treatment methods. Interpreting depression as a hardware problem largely caused by the loss of synaptic connections, the researchers argue that ketamine works by encouraging sprightly neural growth in brain regions correlated with memory and mood. Journalistic reports also linked this research with the development of a new vein of antidepressants, including Naurex’s GLYX-13, that have the neurone-fertilising power of ketamine without, as one report describes them, the ‘schizophrenia-like effects’.

Rarely has the new neuro-reductionism been so naked in its repackaging of human experience. Nowhere in the research or the journalism does anyone suggest that heavily depressed people feel better because ketamine sends them on a first-person voyage through profound, sometimes ecstatic, and certainly mind-bending modes of transpersonal consciousness whose subjective power might itself boot the mind out of its most mirthless ruts.

Return trip: A new generation of researchers is heading into the weird world of psychedelic drugs. It could change their minds


  1.  What a bunch of totally unscientific gobbeldygook this is:

    “Perhaps what we see in extraordinary psychedelic experience is the temporary establishment of a circuit in which a variety of worlds link up and begin to resonate, so that neurons, cultural narratives, the lords of the forest, the serpent twists of DNA and the make-believe of ‘something like’ are inextricably woven together in a multidimensional matrix that reverberates in a rainbow display as sacred as it is profane.” 

    As far as I know, the serious scientific community doesn’t consider that hallucinogenic research “calls into question strict materialism.”

    1. Allow me to translate from “hippy” to “soulless materialist atheist” for you:

      “Perhaps what we see in extraordinary psychedelic experience is the temporary cessation of the confirmation bias and rationalization that characterize normal operation of the mind (confirmed by scientific experiment) allowing concepts and themes that were in tension or outright contradiction under the prevailing cognitive regime to be juxtaposed in ways previously thought impossible allowing one to make sense of what one once thought was senseless.” 

      I am also a soulless materialist atheist.  I wasn’t making fun of you, I was making fun of the usual criticisms of materialism.  The hard problem of consciousness is still the biggest challenge for a materialist worldview and that’s really what’s in play under the “mind over matter” medicinal properties of psychedelics.  I’m fairly confident the problem can be resolved within a materialist framework but it’s good to consider arguments to the contrary if only to keep ourselves thinking about the issue instead of reacting on the basis of our preexisting biases.

    2. all he is saying is that we have to take into consideration all of the above… that none of them or all of them are possibly influencing the psychedelic trip.

  2. Are the test subjects college age? Has anyone considered that amphetamine, nootropic and phenethylamine use might complicate any neuro study in that demographic? Ketamine and other NMDA antagonists, anecdotally, have a restorative effect regarding short- and long-term MDMA-induced depression, for example.  Can’t speak to the actual mechanism, though. 

    If depression is self-reported, how can we know the difference between homeostatic and chemically self-induced blues? And for christ’s sake, why would we START with ketamine. There’s a little-known OTC antagonist called “Robitussin,” already…I’m not against enjoyment or soul searching. Positing ketamine as ‘good for you’ – indirectly – might even be correct/true. But it might only be ‘good’ for a very narrow group of depressives. I’m anything but puritan, but if we’re talking about an actual health regimen, I just can’t afford to trip balls with my morning coffee.  

  3. While you may not feel Davis “plunges” into woo-woo he certainly goes on a pleasant little snorkeling trip through it.

    He attributes desires to insubstantial spirits and claims that material molecules causing mystical experiences is some sort of paradox that researchers need to grapple with rather than a basic premiss of biology and psychology for some time.

    Subjective emotional experiences are extremely important and useful but calling them “poetic fact” doesn’t change them into a different kind of stuff.

    And, “reductionist researchers of powerful psychedelic effects must still squirm before God”. Seriously?

Comments are closed.