The Mind, Explained (2019) s01e05 Episode Script

Psychedelics

When I was 21 years old, I got diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage 3.
When I met the doctor, he he basically gave me this image of, like, out of ten NYU students, two will die.
All I could imagine is, like, what it would be like if I was one of those two.
It turned out Octavian was one of the eight.
Chemotherapy worked and his cancer went into remission.
But, for some reason, it was really difficult for me to not feel worried and anxious about the fact that the cancer can come back.
His doctor told him about an ongoing experimental trial with cancer patients that was testing if this kind of crushing anxiety about death could be treated with psychedelic drugs.
Part of me was curious because I thought I was gonna get high.
But part of me also said "Like, what do I have to lose? Like, it can't get worse than this.
" After a couple of therapy sessions to prepare, researchers gave Octavian psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, in a little capsule.
It's one of these moments that really changed everything in my life.
I saw this black smoke sort of come out of me and I just felt so at peace and so euphoric about the future.
His anxiety was gone.
He wasn’t even nervous when he went in for checkups months later to see if the cancer had returned.
You're just waiting for the doctor to come in to tell you, you know, in the next minute, either you're gonna live or you're gonna die.
That can be really overwhelming, but when I was there, I was blissful, I was at peace.
The other cancer patients in the study also felt their anxiety fall.
Six months later, most of them were still holding on to that sense of peace.
All from taking just one pill.
There have only been a few studies like this and sample sizes have been small.
But the early results are pretty extraordinary.
In one study, a couple of psychedelic doses were enough to help two-thirds of smokers quit for at least a year.
That's the most effective smoking cessation treatment ever studied.
And In a study of 19 people with persistent depression who weren't helped by typical treatments, all of them felt at least some relief after taking psilocybin.
How can a brief encounter with a psychedelic drug have dramatic and varied effects? And what does that tell us about the mind? A real acid trip is, like, beyond pleasure, beyond pain.
The reason I'm talking about LSD is that I'm trying to counteract a lot of the popular publicity.
Why would anyone want to take drugs and really mess up their mind? I hallucinated a fish that just came and swallowed the worm.
For the first time in my life, I wanted love.
A lot of what you read is true, a lot more of it isn't true.
You need all the facts.
In the middle of World War II, the unsuspecting town of Basel, Switzerland, became the site of the world's first LSD experience.
And the man who would embark on that inaugural “acid trip” was Albert Hofmann, the chemist who first synthesized LSD.
The LSD molecule is shaped a lot like serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in our brains.
In the years to come, scientists would investigate molecules with similar properties found in mushrooms, cacti, including the peyote cactus, and tropical plants that are used in the psychoactive drink Ayahuasca.
LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DM are known as the classic psychedelics.
They can all be eaten, DMT and mescaline are sometimes smoked, and these three can be brewed into a tea.
LSD is so potent, tiny drops can be placed on blotter paper, which you let dissolve in your mouth.
They all enter the bloodstream and then bind to serotonin receptors in your brain, which can dramatically change your perception of reality for three to twelve hours, depending on the drug and the dose and the person.
But Albert Hofmann didn’t know any of this when he decided to test LSD on himself in 1943.
He took what he thought was an incredibly small dose.
I think it was, like, 250 micrograms.
And for any other drug I mean I just said micrograms, right? That's a millionth of a gram.
250 micrograms is about twice as much as a typical dose of LSD today.
Hofmann recorded the experience in his lab notebook.
"5 p.
m.
, beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.
Home by bicycle.
From six to eight, most severe crisis.
” After it was over, he spent some time trying to figure out, "Well, this is a powerful drug, but what is it for?" They decide to crowd source a research program by offering LSD 25 to any researcher who requests it for free.
By the 1960's, some of Hofmann’s LSD had found its way to the Spring Grove Mental Health Facility in the United States, where the federal government was funding a trial to see if this drug could help treat mental disorders.
Oh, excuse me.
Arthur was plagued by alcoholism.
Peg, by irrational fears.
I don't know of what, but boy, am I afraid.
The preliminary results were promising.
I haven’t had any desire to drink anything.
Now, I enjoy life the way I should.
I’m intrigued, I’m impressed, but I also am aware that this requires a great deal of study.
And for that reason I would encourage investigation of uses of LSD as a drug.
This guy was America's top mental health official at the time.
There'd been six international conferences about LSD in the '50s and '60s and a thousand peer reviewed papers.
This was completely erased from the field.
What happened between then and now? How was it that these compounds became so culturally feared that, in fact, it was thought to be unethical even to give them to humans? Well, the '60s happened.
The acid trip became a very important rite of passage for this generation.
It was this searing experience and you were a different person at the end than the beginning.
Many Americans first heard about psychedelics from an article featured on this Life magazine cover.
It had some title like "The Discovery of Mushrooms that Cause Strange Visions.
" At a hippie festival in San Francisco, disgraced Harvard psychology lecturer Timothy Leary encouraged the youth of America to Turn on, tune in, and drop out! That catchphrase became a slogan of the counterculture movement, and Leary became a psychedelic celebrity.
In The Psychedelic Experience, his guide to tripping, he wrote that "awareness can expand beyond the range of your ego, your self, your familiar identity, beyond everything you have learned.
" Psychedelic drugs became intertwined with rock and roll and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
We have a kind of militant right-wing mentality in the government, and the only way to free myself from it is to consciously drop out of it.
Psychedelic chemicals are just tools of consciousness.
That was very threatening to the adult world.
Is this America? There was this unusual kind of cultural consensus that resulted in media demonization of these compounds.
And even Time Life does a 180 on psychedelics.
The same magazine that had helped introduce psychedelics to America, less than a decade later ran a cover story calling them an "exploding threat.
" And so Richard Nixon, who firmly believed that psychedelics were fueling the counterculture, he came down very hard on it.
The U.
S.
placed psychedelics and marijuana in the most dangerous legal category of drugs: Schedule 1.
These were compounds considered to have “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.
” Internationally, 34 UN member states agreed to ban certain psychedelics.
Nixon fired that guy who encouraged the study of LSD and established a new government agency dedicated to enforcing drug laws.
Timothy Leary was sent to prison.
And funding for psychedelics research dried up.
Regulatory approval got next to impossible.
LSD has no proven use in medicine.
Educational and government films warned of the risk of chromosome damage, birth defects fatal accidents, suicide, and psychosis.
We know that someone who takes LSD has brain damage.
We know that this drug damages the brain.
That's what kept me from using psychedelics.
I read those stories, I believed them.
I just thought it would scramble my brain.
But most research since then suggests psychedelics don't scramble your brain, that they aren’t toxic or physically addictive.
And no evidence supports those claims about chromosome damage or birth defects.
The risks certainly were well overblown, but the risks aren't zero.
For one thing, street psychedelics can sometimes be laced with other drugs, like PCP or meth.
And even if your drugs are pure, these are still drugs, powerful ones.
Users can get disoriented and hurt themselves or others.
There's also anecdotal evidence that if you're predisposed to mental illness, psychedelics might push you over the edge.
The worst that can happen is people can be subsequently schizophrenic or have enduring psychotic illnesses.
But according to this study, that risk appears to be very low.
It surveyed nearly 20,000 psychedelics users and found no significant associations between these drugs and mental health problems.
In fact, lifetime psychedelic use was associated with a lower likelihood of past year inpatient mental health treatment.
But none of that new research changed the law.
Now, 184 countries have signed on to the UN’s psychedelics ban.
Although religious ceremonies sometimes get a special exemption in national laws.
And in 2016, Americans thought trying LSD was as dangerous as having four or five drinks nearly every day.
When we initially sought approval of our first psilocybin study, such a study hadn't been approved in almost 30 years.
His landmark paper documented the profound and even spiritual experiences people have on psychedelics.
With heroin, cocaine alcohol you go outside of yourself, so it's like a numbing.
This actually pulls you inside.
In a way, it's kind of like meditation.
Meditation is the tried and true course to investigation of nature of mind, and psychedelics is the crash course.
Most people will rate this experience a year afterwards as being among the most personally meaningful or spiritually significant experiences of their entire lifetime.
And of course, these experiences often feature groovy visions.
There can be a remarkable blending of things like music and sound with imagery.
My guide put on a Bach, Unaccompanied Cello Suite Number 2 in D minor.
I became that music, I completely mind melded with Bach and Yo-Yo Ma, who was playing it.
And I could feel the horsehair of the bow going over my skin and I I went inside the well of the cello, looking out, and I was just absolutely at one with this music.
The music was so sad, it was all about death.
But it was so beautiful that you felt reconciled to death in the experience.
Your self no longer exists.
This is what Timothy Leary was talking about when he said psychedelics could expand awareness beyond the ego.
And what happens when your ego dissolves is that you merge with something larger.
Of course this is one of the great cliches of psychedelic experience.
People come out and they've figured out the secret of the universe.
And you know what that is? Love.
And we hear over and over, almost every session report has something about there's this interconnectiveness to all of life, to all people.
It has them view the world in a different way.
Griffiths and his peers were curious if such a transformative experience could help treat the most stubborn ailments of the mind.
Depression, anxiety about death, alcoholism, and cigarette addiction.
If we think of our cigarette smokers, they're actually particularly interesting because when the psychedelic '60s came around, plenty of people smoked cigarettes and took psychedelics and continued to smoke cigarettes afterwards.
It seems that psychedelics only help you quit smoking if you want the experience to help you quit smoking There really is something about intentionality that is probably critical to maximizing the impact of these of these experiences.
One of the most powerful things about psychedelics is how suggestible they are.
In The Psychedelic Experience, Leary observed that the nature of these experiences depends almost entirely on set and setting.
That’s your mindset, your mood and expectations, and your environment, the place where you are and the people you’re with.
Getting that right is crucial because in a survey of psilocybin users, most considered the experience to be the among the top ten most psychologically difficult or challenging experiences of their lives.
And an uneasy mindset or uncomfortable setting can lead to a so-called bad trip.
There are real psychological risks with these drugs that we should not underestimate.
I think there are important lessons we can learn from the ancient use of psychedelics.
There's always an elder, a shaman, who knows the territory who's guiding you.
For hundreds of years, forest-dwelling shamans throughout the upper Amazon have used Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew that contains DMT, to access spiritual knowledge that could help treat a variety of illnesses.
When the Spanish invaded the Americas, a Franciscan friar recorded use of peyote, the cacti that contain mescaline, in what is now Northern Mexico.
He reported, “Those who eat it see terrifying and amusing visions.
” Further south, the Aztecs ate little mushrooms with honey.
Some saw themselves dying in a vision and wept.
The Spanish viewed this tradition as a threat to Christianity.
And they actually brutally suppressed the "mushroom cult," as they called it.
The practice was forced underground.
Hundreds of years later, a medicine woman named Maria Sabina reluctantly agreed to perform a mushroom-based healing ritual for a New York banker.
And he wrote about it in that influential LIFE cover story.
As mushrooms became popular with hippies, Sabina observed, “The young people didn’t need me.
Kids ate them anywhere and anytime and they didn’t respect our customs.
” Recreational users may not always turn to shamans, but scientists, in their own way, have embraced this tradition.
I've run about 450 sessions since we started.
In clinical trials, guides meet with the volunteers a couple times before handing out the drugs.
I’ll be going over everything that may possibly be surprising, frightening, or in some way or other make it difficult for you during the LSD day.
There may be moments when you feel as if your own boundaries are dissolving.
The purpose of the meetings is to develop trust and rapport with your guides, so that you can allow yourself to go into the psilocybin experience without holding back anything.
Is it like dying? If you feel this way, die Peg.
You’re not dying.
They're kind of ground control while you're traveling up in space.
I mean that's what shamans do.
You believe in the authority of this person and that the potion he's giving you is going to heal you.
The guide's job is to cultivate a set and setting that’s conducive to a meaningful but not too terrifying experience.
They might play music or put on blindfolds and headphones to limit stimulation from the outside and encourage a turn inward.
The guide’s work doesn’t end when the trip is over.
The integration is so important.
How are you going to make this now a part of you rather than just an experience? What they recommended was that I go home and immediately write down everything I can about that day.
It solidified certain experiences in me.
When I felt like I'm about to feel anxious, I would just go back to those experiences and it just didn't matter.
In 2014 researchers mapped what’s happening in the brain during a trip.
This is a representation of a normal sober brain.
These dots are different regions of the brain, and these lines are the connections.
And here’s what the tripping brain looks like.
Regions that wouldn’t usually talk are now in lively conversation.
One can't help but wonder whether in this period of extreme interconnectivity that there isn't a potential for rewiring or making new connections.
And that's a attractive, but very speculative hypothesis about why these effects might be so enduring.
A leading psychedelic researcher once said you can think of your mind as a snow-covered hill and your thoughts are sleds.
A path is pressed into the snow.
It gets deeper and deeper and soon it’s hard to escape that groove.
A psychedelic trip is the fresh snowfall that lets your sleds explore a new path.
That could mean changing an ingrained behavior, like an alcohol or cigarette addiction.
Depression and anxiety are very much like addictions.
People in depression and anxiety are often in this ruminating pattern.
You're getting stuck in loops of thought, you're getting stuck on narratives of who you are.
The brain circuitry responsible for constantly mulling over the past and future, creating this narrow sense of self, is the default mode network.
This seems to be the seat of the ego.
In depression, activity in the default mode network is increased and it's decreased acutely with a drug like psilocybin.
By dissolving the ego, you may dissolve the hold of narratives on people.
You know, that you're not identical to this annoying chattering voice in your head.
These are less well controlled studies, but they seem to show very significant and enduring effects.
People who have been suicidal, people who have been hopeless, self-loathing, and then come in and see this smiling, saying, "I went home and I walked in my house and started crying with joy.
" That they now see who they really are.
We’re still a ways off from psychedelics being prescribed outside clinical trials.
Much more research needs to be done.
These drugs are unique.
More than any pharmaceutical on the market, the effects of these compounds depend on where you take them, who you take them with, and what you want them to do.
I don't think these drugs are right for everyone, but for a great many of us, I think they offer potential.
I had one experience where I died.
And I was pretty sure that where I was was just death.
Like, this is what being dead must be like and it's not that bad.
So, why am I so afraid? And that was very powerful because I sort of made the choice not to let it affect me.
And I've been different ever since.
In a good way.