“Psychedelics offer us life in high-definition”

"Psychedelic" by David Atkinson is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Amanda Feilding is a leading advocate for the use of psychedelics to cure mental illnesses. She told us why LSD is not a party drug but should be taken while visiting the pyramids.

When talking about psychedelics, vivid colors immediately come to mind – is that the most intense sensation one gets from it?
Colors are certainly a very important part of the hallucinogenic experience, possibly the strongest sensation even.

Description. Photo by Robert Funke.

Amanda Fielding is the Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation. Photo by Robert Funke.

How come?
Our research has shown that psychedelics – in particular LSD –  reduce the inhibiting properties of the default mode network. You can think of it like the ego: A network that senses impulses coming from the sensory system. Normally, instead of getting the pure sensation, you are getting a reduced version. But after taking psychedelics, what we have seen is that there’s a much greater flow of blood and connectivity between the visual center of the brain and other centers. That makes the visual experience much more informed by our personal memories, or images from the past and hence much more intensive.

Psychedelics are known for being another way of seeing the world, of creating a different reality…
That comes from removing the normal, day-to-day repression. Due to conditioning, we filter out most of what we could see. That filtering system – which happens through the default mode network – is reduced or even eliminated when we take psychedelics. Psychedelics offer us life in high-definition.

Following that logic, it would mean that the bright colors one sees when taking LSD are actually real, but we don’t perceive them in everyday life…
Exactly. We sensor them down to manageable components. Seeing a flower after taking psychedelics will make you see it breathing and living – it’s so beautiful you can hardly believe it. Whereas in daily life, you would just go “That’s a lovely rose and very pretty.” When the visual centers have unrestricted connectivity to other parts of the brain, the results are richer – both in memory and in emotion.

That reminds me of something Aldous Huxley once wrote: That chemical substances can make us see colors and beauty that – as he put it – transports us to our antipodes.
It’s a beauty felt with a kind of emotional context. And that is what is wonderful about psychedelics: They give fresh emotion to the experience of seeing, hearing, or thinking. It is fresher, brighter, and more filled with richness from memory and possibility. Ordinary life is just a reduced version of that.

Is that why they are so widely used for art?
Absolutely. To get the greatest enjoyment of beauty, say at a historical site in Egypt, or when admiring a beautiful monument, you should really expand your awareness to feel it in a deeper, more vibrant way. Psychedelics are wonderful enhancers of the normal senses, leading to much richer experiences. Watching the pyramids on LSD is not something you forget.

By now, when we see a certain pattern or painting that includes bright color combinations, we say “oh, this looks psychedelic”. It has already become a label for something that cannot be grasped within the normal ways we describe art.
Right, it seems to be more poignant. Some prehistoric cave art in France, which is 40.000 years old, has the same intensity of the line and energy in the depiction of animals that a drawing by Picasso has. The people drawing it were clearly intensely into it – and probably on a psychedelic substance when drawing.

“LSD opens up reality without censorship”

Why do artists become so engaged when taking these substances?
First of all, there’s added intensity, which makes the art more exciting and also, there’s a tendency towards synesthesia. Another finding in our research is that the different networks in the brain are normally very integrated within themselves. They don’t communicate much with one another. Whereas LSD leads to much more communication between different networks, even between some that don’t normally communicate with one another. Lines of communication get opened up, and it makes the whole brain much more of a unit.

In the perception of many people, the things you see under the influence of drugs – especially psychedelics – aren’t real. They are hallucinations. Whereas you say that what we see is an augmented reality…
…a richer reality! One without the censorship. You can think of hallucination as seeing with eyes closed. And we have also done the research on that: We compared the experience of people with their eyes closed on LSD with those of others on placebo. The impression in the visual center of the people on LSD is as strong as those of a person seeing something with their eyes open. They are seeing with eyes closed. So hallucination stems from the memory or emotion, and the imprint is as strong as other peoples’ reality. I am sure we will discover a lot more in this field, when we further explore the breakdown of the Default Mode Network that I have mentioned, which causes the normal censorship.

We know all these art pieces that have been created under the influence of certain substances. And I feel that society very much cherishes not just those works but the overall hippie era. Yet using these drugs is still widely frowned upon.
Absolutely. The use of psychedelics became taboo in the late 1960s. But I think the taboo is slowly lifting; with the realization of how incredibly valuable these substances can be in a therapeutic context. They can be a treatment for many intractable modern illnesses – like in depression, anxiety, or addiction. Or, indeed, against chronic headaches. Society has trouble with a whole lot of illnesses: 20% of people suffering from depression never start treatment. In studies of our synthesized therapy, the success rate of treating people suffering from depression has been very high, much higher than normal treatment – a success rate of 67 per cent in the pilot study.

Does this work because you give the patient access to insights or memories they didn’t previously have? A clinically depressed person struggles to get that access in therapy, since there is a kind of blockage. Psychedelics may be able to lift that – but isn’t there a danger of them opening a gate to something harmful?
With our depression study, we have taken the greatest care: People have been carefully screened before doing the research, to determine that they are suitable. And then there are two psychiatrists present. The person is looked after with great care, and under those circumstances, the danger is minimal. People can have a bit of a panic attack, but that is much more dangerous if they take psychedelics in uncontrolled, unsuitable circumstances. Which is not what we’re abdicating at all.

Isn´t it hard to precisely dosage LSD? How do you know how much to give to someone?
Absolutely. That’s the problem of the criminalization of a legal market. Ideally, people should be able to access psychedelics in therapy with trained therapists, and we should’t really be depriving patients of these forms of treatment if the research is showing a high rate of success. But we’re obviously in the early days of it, and although we’re heading into the right direction, we have to move forward with great care. The LSD study is testing safety of different dosages. It can teach us an awful lot about how the substance can be used to treat different disorders. Our studies suggest that it can efficiently reduce the function of the Default Mode Network…

…The intra-networks of different brain regions
In depression, the default mode network is hyperactive, and people feel like they are stuck in a circuit. Psychedelics break that network so that a new kind of setting, which can shake the chronically negative thought pattern and make a more positive one replace it. It seems as though these substances aid healing by getting to a deeper access of the personality. Normally, trauma and unhappiness are protected by repressive networks, by the Default Mode Network – which is another way of saying ego. But with psychedelics, the censorship breaks down. You get full access to your inner self.

“LSD is not a party drug”

So far, we have only talked about psychedelics as a therapeutic drug – you are certainly pioneers in that field. But to most people around the globe, they are still a recreational drug.
I’m afraid that has come from 40 years of inaccurate press coverage and misuse. LSD is not a party drug.  Historically, these substances have always been used as part of a religious, spiritual healing ceremony. With rather tight control and the support of the group – which seemed like a very sensible way of taking them.

Such as Ayahuasca?
Exactly, the famous brew from the Amazon. There, they have a way of taking it that makes the people feel like they are in a protective environment. Where they can open up to their inner travels, which can help people overcome trauma. And we saw the same with our study on depression. People who had been depressed for 18 years or more suddenly felt that they were, for the first time, able to enjoy themselves.

But were there lasting effects? In depression, the use of therapeutic methods might just be a short-term fix…
Remarkably, from our research, after a week it was rated as a 76% rate of overcoming depression. And after three months, the rate was 42%. Which is a lot more than ordinary forms of treatment. Not only is the effect felt immediately, it also leaves an afterglow of changed perception.

How many sessions do your patients have?
In this little part of the research, there were two sessions, first with a small dose, the second one with a medium dose. And people who have a deep experience of ego loss and spiritual awakening are very often the people who have optimized the benefits of overcoming depression or addiction, or whatever they were trying to cure.

Would you say that since your research center focusses exclusively on psychedelics, that other drugs, such as MDMA, have the same potential?
We actually also do research with MDMA and cannabis. And I would say they all have the same potential, but in a different way. MDMA has a special kind of flooding the brain with empathy, because it stimulates oxytocin. The effect is akin to what a mother experiences when she has a child, or when you are in love. So it makes the person love themselves – and the therapist, and everyone else.

…which aids therapy.
It makes it easier to face a terrible memory within themselves. That’s very good for post-traumatic stress disorder. But it doesn’t include the psychedelic experience of overcoming of the ego that I just mentioned. They have slightly different qualities, but can all be beneficial. Researching these and other substances, which we have only become able to recently, is opening up entirely new avenues of treatment – and can be very healing for society. We can treat illness, expand awareness depth of hearing and vision, and further understanding.

You have personally experimented with trepanation, where a hole is drilled into the skull to expand the consciousness. You have said that this was an experience even more intense, the next step from using psychedelic.
I didn’t really say it was the next step, but as far as I know – and we haven’t done enough research – it gives back to the brain the full experience of the heartbeat by removing a piece of bone. The heartbeat can express itself fully within the brain. It improves the circulation of cerebral spinal fluids, which wash out the toxins that can build up and produce the plaque underlying Alzheimers. But the experience is much less intense than taking LSD for example. Just like psychedelics, trepanation is an old healing technique.

So it is about returning to a prior knowledge that our society has forgotten, or criminalized?
Even breathing can get people very high. Meditation can have the same effect as a psychedelic. There are different ways of manipulating the brain in order to attain a less rigid state in our daily consciousness. And it can be healthy for the individual to experience these different states. There are serious conditions that need all the help they can get. Sadly, the altering of consciousness has a bad name – but is a part of the human experience and something we should learn more about.

More on Amanda’s work at: http://beckleyfoundation.org/

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Max Tholl
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Max likes reading, writing, music gigs, cats, and pickled beets – though not necessarily in that order. He hails from Luxembourg, is terrible at board games, a mediocre cook, but can hum the Turtles theme song in four different languages. Max was an editor for The European where he met Lars. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram.