Death holds no sting: new studies on effects of psychedelics


After decades consigned to research limbo, scientific studies of the very interesting effects of psychedelics on human consciousness are back in vogue.

On 19 July 2010 the prestigious Journal of Psychopharmacology reported the results of the first randomized controlled trial into the therapeutic potential of the "party drug" Ecstasy for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. The trial showed the drug to be remarkably effective in treating PTSD. Soon afterwards, on 31 August, 2010, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was granted a license by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct a new and extended study in which Ecstasy will be given to war veterans with PTSD. Also around the end of August 2010, Charles Grob MD, a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, reported the results of administering psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — to patients suffering from terminal cancers. Grob found that the drug induced a "peaceful and blissful" state of oneness with oneself and the cosmos and notes: "these spiritually oriented altered states … potentially allow patients to have an abrupt shift of consciousness from being scared about dying and feeling their life is over … It was quite remarkable to me to see changes in these people who were very anxious and in distress and to see how they got better."

In the 1970s and 1980s the mentality of the "War on Drugs" ensured that no research was done with psychedelics at all. The twenty year hiatus was ended in 1990 by Rick Strassman MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, who conducted a DEA-approved study administering the powerful hallucinogen DMT (dimethyltryptamine) to human volunteers. At the end of the study, five years later, nearly all the volunteers reported that the DMT sessions had been amongst the most profound experiences of their lives. Intriguingly around 80 per cent also reported that DMT had transported their consciousness to seamlessly convincing parallel realms where they encountered and received teachings from intelligent non-human beings. In a number of cases the beings (sometimes construed as "aliens", sometimes as "spirits", sometimes as "angels", sometimes even as "elves" or fairies") stated they were pleased the volunteers had discovered "this technology" — i.e. DMT — since they would now be able to communicate with them more easily!

Strassman admits to being "baffled and nonplussed" during his DMT research by the: "surprising and remarkable consistencies among volunteers' reports of contact with nonmaterial beings … [in an] 'alien' realm … or high-technology room. The highly-intelligent beings of this 'other' world are interested in the subject, seemingly ready for his or her arrival and wasting no time in 'getting to work' … They … communicated with the volunteers, attempting to convey information by gestures, telepathy, or visual images. The purpose of contact was uncertain, but several subjects felt a benevolent attempt on the beings' part to improve us individually or as a race."

One of the reasons that Strassman eventually stopped his research in 1995 was because he "could not comfortably accept, nor incorporate the remarkably high frequency of being contact." That, however, was precisely what interested me about his discoveries. Indeed, after a career built around writing controversial non-fiction investigations of historical mysteries, I realized that I had finally come upon a subject so extraordinary, and so potentially paradigm-busting that it could only properly be handled in a work of science fiction.

The result is my first novel — Entangled: The Eater of Souls. The two heroines, Leoni who lives in twenty-first century Los Angeles and Ria who lives twenty-four thousand years ago in the Stone Age, are "entangled" in the quantum physics sense. Brought together in a parallel realm outside the flow of earth time by a supernatural being, the Blue Angel, they are taught to use psychedelics to induce altered states of consciousness, make contact with one another, and ultimately to confront and do battle with a time-traveling demon who seeks to destroy all that is good in humanity.

A prevailing prejudice of modern society, a hangover from the darkest days of the War on Drugs, is that the "hallucinations" induced by psychedelics cannot possibly be "real" or significant experiences in any sense but are mere artifacts of disturbed brain function. However, one of the important lessons I've learnt from the research underlying Entangled is that nothing in science allows us to reduce "hallucinations" to the altered electro-chemistry of the brain that accompanies them — any more than sightings of distant stars can be reduced to the workings of the telescope used to bring them into focus.

To explain this analogy a little further, it should be obvious that when we focus a telescope physical changes take place in the relationship between the lenses inside its barrel. We would however, be wrong to state that those changes are the star that eventually comes into view. Quite the contrary — the star is a real object and the physical changes inside the barrel of the telescope simply allow us to see it.

The work of Rick Strassman with DMT, and of Albert Hofmann (the discoverer of LSD), as well as the recent findings with Ecstasy and psilocybin, suggest the need for a new model of how the brain works — not simply as a generator of consciousness but as a receiver of consciousness. According to this radical new model, but deploying a slightly different analogy, the brain is like a TV set that is "hardwired" into the single "channel" of everyday physical reality — Rick Strassman calls it "channel normal." What psychedelics may do when used and administered properly is "retune the receiver wavelength of the brain," thus providing us with regular, repeated, reliable access to other levels of reality that surround us at all times but are not normally accessible to our senses. It is even possible that these long-reviled drugs open a secret doorway inside our own minds allowing us to approach the Holy Grail of quantum physics — freestanding parallel universes and the intelligent beings who inhabit them.

If that is so then the ability of psilocybin to release terminal cancer patients from their fear of death through "an abrupt change of consciousness" makes perfect sense — for they would know from direct experience that even when the television set is broken the television signal keeps right on broadcasting.


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