Skip to content

American Trip Book Launch Video

Comments and responses to the themes and ideas of American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century.

Speakers

8:40 Leor Roseman: Psychedelic peace-building. occupation, liberation, messianic consciousness and Leary’s shadow.

30:00 Uri Shwed: From American Trip to global experience. Symmetrically analyzing drug users experiences.

53:30 Yahav Erez: Stay at home and trip. Recreational use in times of a pandemic.

1:14:30 Tomer Persico. The ethics of consciousness. The Normative element in our set and setting.

1:36:00 Nico Teen – Psychedelic Music Performance

2:03:00 Erik Davis. Setting up set and setting.

2:19:00 Nancy Campbell. The ineffable intensification of ontology.

2:36:45 David Dupuis. The Socialization of hallucination. Anthropological insights on set and setting.

2:56:00 Nicolas Langlitz. Political psychopharmacology.

3:07:15 Closing words (Ido Hartogsohn) and discussion with panelists

Evening host: Noah Efron Psychedelic videos are from the Psychedelic

Video Museum https://www.psychedelicvideomuseum.org/

Videos:

Shmulik Kraus – Shishi Cham / Ori Toor – Vial of Sound / The Geula Party – Choosing Good / Guy Treffler – Not Mine / Victoria Hanna – 22 Letters / Ori Toor – Kingdom Crumbs

Psychedelics and Culture: An Evening in Celebration of the Book American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century

To join the event on Facebook Live click here at the scheduled time.

To join zoom click here.

Description

How does culture shape psychedelic experiences? And how do psychedelics shape human cultures? Has the psychedelic experience transformed with the passing of time? How does it change between different times and places?

Psychedelics and Culture is an evening in celebration of the publication of American Trip: Set and Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the Twentieth Century by Ido Hartogsohn. Eight leading scholars who study psychedelics from diverse perspectives (sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, STS, religious studies) will speak to the cultural dimensions of psychedelia and offer commentary on the themes, ideas and questions presented in American Trip. Israeli indie group Nico Teen will provide psychedelic sounds, and The Psychedelic Video Museum will add some indispensable kaleidoscopic colors.

First Session

18:30-20:30 Jerusalem Time (GMT+2), 11:30-13:30 EST, 8:30-10:30 PST

Speakers:

Leor Roseman. Center for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College London

Uri Schwed. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University

Yahav Erez. The Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society, Bar Ilan University

Tomer Persico. Shalom Hartman Institute. UC Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies 

The incredible sounds of NICO TEEN

Second Session

20:30-22:00 Jerusalem Time (GMT+2), 13:30-15:00 EST, 10:30-12:00 PST

Speakers

Erik Davis. Independent scholar and author of High Weirdness.

Nancy Campbell. Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

David Dupuis. Department of Anthropology, Durham College.

Nicholas Langlitz. Department of Anthropology, New School for Social Research.

Closing words:

Ido Hartogsohn

To join the event on Facebook Live click here at the scheduled time.

To join on zoom.

Setting intention for a 21st century collective trip

This piece was originally published in the Lucid News.

***

After taking a trip with psychedelics in the 1960s, our culture is now at it again, but if we want this one to be epic and not a bummer, we need to work on our intention

If you’d have met anyone from the year 2000 and told them where psychedelics would be in 2020, they would have laughed at you and told you to get out of the room.

In 2020, after long decades of derision and persecution, psychedelics are well on the way to becoming mainstream. Psychedelic research is enjoying a renaissance, and the volume of published research on psychedelics increases exponentially, overhauling the golden days of the sixties. A growing number of public figures and celebrities openly confess their personal debt to psychedelics, and books on the topic land at the top of international best-seller lists. In 2020 Westerns in search of healing are flocking to the amazon to seek shamans, and medicine men are becoming celebrated figures in a burgeoning international entheogenic scene. Meanwhile, decriminalization and legalization initiatives are winning ballots across the globe, and drug-war type opposition to psychedelics is quickly evaporating as government agencies, drug companies and mental health professionals all join the growing furor, hailing psychedelics as paradigm-breaking, revolutionary tools for healthcare.But there is a poignant contradiction to observe. As psychedelics become ever more popular and mainstream, the world is becoming increasingly destabilized, demoralized and desperate. Anti-democratic authoritarian leadership has taken root across many parts of the globe, and a severe climate crisis is approaching, while humanity is seemingly unable to settle on any appropriate response. Old economic and political paradigms are going bankrupt with no alternative on the horizon, and on top of it all, a new pandemic is raging across the globe wreaking havoc on global societies and their ways of life.

Observing this psychedelic efflorescence accompanying a rapidly deteriorating world one can’t help but be reminded of psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin’s theory about the role of Eros and Thanatos in the history of psychedelics and humanity. History, Shulgin believed firmly, is defined by a delicate balance between Eros, the drive to life, and Thanatos the drive to death. Whenever movement occurs in one direction, Shulgin argued, it will soon be compensated by a pull to the other side. Thus, for instance, the 1896 discovery of uranium was soon followed by the 1897 discover of mescaline by Arthur Heffter, and the 1942 discoveries that led to nuclear weapons were quickly followed by the discovery of LSD in 1943.

Shulgin’s eschatological musings are not an outlier in the history of psychedelic thought. Similar notions about the prophetic role of psychedelics at times of crisis have been central to the writing of countless psychedelic authors from Terence Mckenna to Daniel Pinchbeck. In other words, the sudden rise of psychedelics at an historical moment in which humanity is facing its gravest dangers since many decades appears like the realization of one of the most deeply entrenched motifs of messianic psychedelic lore.

And yet, as psychedelics are finally their making entry at the scene, the mood on the ground does not appear as celebratory as one might expect. And part of the reason, expectedly perhaps, has to do with the new challenges that emerge as psychedelics migrate from the fantastic land of Oz and become real-world objects with complex sociological, cultural, and political dimensions.

Psychedelics Society at a Crossroads

After decades of blessed obscurity at the caring hands of a select group of sworn, trusted idealists, psychedelics are now entering a wider arena and attracting interest from business interests. This in itself is expectable and arguably even positive development, however it signifies the intrusion of the norms of extractive capitalism into the world of psychedelia, and an attempt for the co-optation of psychedelia by big-pharma. In a grander sense, this also creates a puncture at the countercultural heart of psychedelia. For years, the world of psychedelics understood itself as centered around certain types of ideas and values of community, sharing and cooperation. All of these seem compromised once ruthless businessmen like Peter Theil begin intervening in the future of psychedelic medicine.

The response to these developments by (what, at least in former, innocent times, was referred to as) the psychedelic community has been enraged in parts, but also patchy and schismatic, evincing the presence of a more general process of felt fragmentation happening within the community.

With psychedelic mainstreaming came also an abundance of psychedelic initiatives, organizations, groups and communities, so that what once seemed like one happy, cozy marriage of heterogenous groups with an interest in mind transforming substances is quickly finding that it is really a breeding ground for a spectacular variety of approaches and perspectives on the subject of psychedelics, from business type entrepreneurs to science nerds, medicine seekers, psychonauts, cultural cats and radical activists of many colors.

True, these groups often overlap and many of them meet together at the same conferences, but even that is changing, and when it does happen, one is confronted with highly heterogeneous perspectives and world views.

This apparent plurality of psychedelic perspectives isn’t really new, nor is it surprising. This plurality is a corollary of the most fundamental, most crucial concept in the psychedelic toolbox: set and setting. What this concept basically means is that context matters. Psychedelics are not a simple work tool that does the same thing whenever you put it to use. It matters how these drugs are used.

This, after all, is the first lesson in psychonautics 101. The context we create for a psychedelic experience matters. The kind of preparation we do, the kind of intention we set, the kind of environment we choose – all these are essential to whatever we hope to achieve from an experience with a psychedelic.

Crucially, what is true on the individual level tends to also true at the level of entire societies and communities. For instance, it is sometimes said that the psychedelic 1960s were like a trip that the entirety of American society took. And, in fact, when one studies psychedelic culture and psychedelic experiences of the 1960s it becomes evident that the 1960s psychedelic experience was distinctly shaped by the broader historical, social and cultural set and setting of that period, similar to the way in which a personal experience with psychedelics gets shaped by its more immediate factors.

In my book American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century, I show how the psychedelic experience of mid-twentieth century America was a product of its time; how historical and cultural forces worked to add distinct flavors to the psychedelic experiences of Americans at the time, shaping how psychedelic experiences were lived and understood. Among other things, I follow seven distinct scientific and cultural schools that existed in the mid-twentieth-century world of psychedelia. Each of these schools delivered its own interpretation of the meaning of psychedelics. Each created a microclimate of set and setting, and so produced extremely dissimilar results in its experiments with the drugs.

One of the lessons that could be drawn from that examination of the story of mid-twentieth-century psychedelic history is that the psychedelic experience is not a given. It is always crucially shaped by the set and setting of the culture and the society in which it emerges.

Building the set and setting for a 21st century renaissance

As psychedelics enter the scene in 2020 the broader cultural setting of this new trip is something we need to be acutely aware of. Older narratives of Western psychedelia had it playing the part of the countercultural rebel suffering at the hands of a pharmacological inquisition, but what happens when these repressive forces change their tune and psychedelics suddenly get invited into the cultural happening? What happens when psychedelics, far from forbidden, become a consumer product pampered from all sides like another magic pill in a grander cornucopia of consumer capitlaism?

In Amused to Death cultural critic Neil Postman suggested a useful distinction between the type of 1984 Orwellian style dystopia based on repression and fear, and the hedonic, consumer-oriented dystopia of Huxley’s masterpiece Brave New World.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

Psychedelic society in 2020 suddenly finds itself closer to Huxlian models of consumerist dystopia to those of Orwellian oppression. The transformative potential of psychedelics is increasingly obscured and dissolved by banality and commercialism of consumerist culture, and it is in this context that the lesson of collective set and setting becomes ever more crucial.

For decades, psychedelic society was busy defending itself from nefarious effects of the war on drugs, but now it finds itself sobering up to a reality where market capitalism is intruding into countercultural psychedelic bastion and digesting it from the inside.

When psychedelics get sucked into a market dynamic this has the potential of fracturing a fragile ecosystem of trust-based relationships and ideals that was established over decades. When psychedelics become medicalized, corporatized and capitalized this creates a fundamental shift in the ways that individuals and societies approach these tool, and in the narratives and frameworks that decide the outcomes of these new encounters.

If the story of 1960s psychedelic cultures teaches us anything relevant for today’s psychedelic dilemmas it would be that much in the spirit of Nietzsche’s concept of will to power, it matters who gets to interpret the psychedelic experience. Interpretation is powerful and resonates across the spectrum. The social and cultural constructs getting erected around the world of psychedelics are crucial to deciding the fate of these culture-wide encounters between societies and drugs.

For decades, the psychedelic community has been focused on just achieving a degree of legitimacy and legality for its precious sacraments. Now that these earlier goals seem closer than ever, it is time to think closely on the set and the setting we want to have going into this new stage.

Are medicalized models of psychedelia productive or counterproductive? Should the return of psychedelics be mediated by medical, spiritual, or cultural frameworks? And how do these different frameworks complement or contradict each other? Does the intrusion of market interests into the world of psychedelia represents a welcome sign of the social and cultural ascendency of these drugs, or is it rather a worrying sign for capitalist takeover and co-optation of the psychedelic experience in the service of a exploitative system? As psychedelics become closer than ever to achieving cultural mainstreaming, what do we really hope to achieve by their integration into culture, how set about achieving that?

I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but they need to be discussed closely and honestly by all those who care passionately about the fate of these powerful medicines in the 21st century. History is giving us a second chance at integrating psychedelics into society and culture, and the decisions we make now will determine the fate of psychedelics for years to come. It matters what kind of intention we’re setting as a culture, as we’re approaching these compounds. The frames and intentions we set as we go into this new period of psychedelic resurgence will determine the trajectory of the 21st psychedelic trip and the types of fruits it will produce.

We’ve already taken the trip. Now is the time to set our intention.

Image: Nicki Adams using adapted images from Thomas Angus, Archives Foundation, and Klaus Berdiin Jensen

Beyond Psychedelic Culture

This essay was originally published in Chacruna, under the title How Set and Setting Shape Psychedelic Cultures

***

How much of what we think we know about the effects of psychedelics originates from their actual effects, and how much is the product of culture? ***

Psychedelic voyaging and experimentation has long become a distinct cultural movement. Born of the ecstatic, life-transforming experiences that commonly occur under the effect of psychedelics, it has become associated with ideas of ecological awareness, independent, free thinking, and progressive values of peace, anti-consumerism, human and indigenous rights. Such values are often taken to be the direct result of the transformative psychedelic experience, the fruits of deeply humbling and edifying experiences inspired by psychedelics.

And yet, at times, when pondering psychedelics from a broader cultural perspectives one is confronted with the question of just how much of the culture revolving psychedelics  is distinctly psychedelic, and how much of it is merely a reflection of independent cultural trends?

The question might seem strange or even unintelligible at first. We tend to assume that the ways in which psychedelics affect individuals around us represents their true and basically uniform character. When we and those surrounding us have a certain type of experience with these agents, we tend to assume that this experience is universal to them, that is intrinsic to their effect.

This essentialist approach, which in other contexts has been called pharmacologicalism, submits that psychoactives have discrete, definite and unchangeable effects – one drug cures addiction, while another treats depression, one is an aphrodisiac and the other helps anxiety.

While this approach is still popular within medical and pharmaceutical discourse, it actually has little to support it, and it is particularly mistaken when we enter the domain of psychedelics, where the central concept of  set and setting makes us aware that effects of psychedelics are always context-dependent. Psychedelics have been described by Stan Grof and othes as non-specific agents, which mirror or amplify mindstates, rather than inducing specific types of states invariably.  Psychedelic experiences are not uniform. They are heterogeneously produced by a assortment of elements such as personality, expectation and intention (set), and physical and social environment (setting), which determine how a specific psychedelic experience would play out.

This is true not only of individual experiences but of the set of psychedelic experiences taking place within a culture as a whole. Cultural values, which inform societies and their perception of reality, determine the collective set and setting conditions, which frame individual set and setting and shapes experiences with psychedelics. Taking a psychedelic within an indigenous culture where its use is consecrated and supported by a complete cosmological worldview that cherishes such experiences is very different than taking the same substance in a laboratory setting, with doctors interested in the psychochemical effects of the drug on the brain, to give one obvious example.

The values of psychedelics

In the syncretic, spiritualist, new-age culture that evolved around plant medicine, psychedelics are primarily associated with certain ideas that might be called progressive. Notions of psychedelics as aids for the attainment of more developed ecological awareness or of a more brotherly, peaceful view of human relations permeate much of  psychedelic culture and its plant medicine offshoots.

By using entheogens, the conventional psychedelic wisdom goes, we become more conscious and aware, helping us develop a more enlightened view of certain matters of modern existence. We might become more aware of the links connecting all forms of life, and of the suffering of the planet, leading us to adopt a more ecologically oriented position, or we might have an experience of cosmic, unitive love, that would allows us to feel akin to social and national groups that we might normally have trouble feeling empathy towards. Still others might say that the use of plant medicine leads one back to their inner most reaches and away from the profane world of modern capitalism, contributing to a the development of a slower, simpler lifestyle.

The proposition that psychedelics could be used to help people realize their debt to the planet, the need for international peace and understanding, or the futility and destructiveness of consumer culture has been with us since the 1950s and it has never gone completely out of fashion within the psychedelic milieu. Just give the leaders of the world acid/ayahusca, the story goes, and their minds will be transformed.

However, is this really so? Are psychedelics really capable of universally triggering such value changes within individuals? We tend to assume that psychedelics cause people to develop slower, simpler, more peaceful, and ecological-minded behaviors and perspectives on life because that is what we tend to encounter around us. But how much of these reactions are the product of the psychedelic experience per se (if there is even such a thing), and how much of it is contingent on the culture in which this experience has developed in our modern world? The answer might be trickier than we assume.

A lesson from the 1960s

If we look back at the psychedelic culture of the 1960s we might discover that many of the characteristics people assumed to be inherent to psychedelic experiences in the 1960s were actually largely shaped by the cultural atmosphere of the time.

Back in the 1960s, for example, people tended to assume psychedelics go hand in hand with enhanced sexuality and with sexual promiscuity. Books with titles such as “The Sexual Paradise of LSD” promulgated LSD as the ultimate sexual experience, while erotic magazines featured images of naked women enveloped in luminescent kaleidoscopic forms. LSD high priest Timothy Leary promised the readers of playboy magazine that a woman having sex under the influence of LSD could have hundreds of orgasms in one love making session. Love making, argued Leary, was the whole point of the LSD experience.

From a contemporary perspective such claims might sound bizarre. Contemporary plant medicine, and even much of present psychedelic culture (e.g. the psytrance scene and psychonaut culture) is not particularly sexual. In fact, in most cases, sexuality seems to take a less prominent role in psychedelic culture than it does in mainstream culture – clothing and behavior seem  generally modest in comparison to other realms of the culture (burning man festival being one obvious exception). In plant medicine circles, this is even more so, with sexual abstinence commonly practiced during and in the days surrounding plant medicine ceremonies. Viewed in perspective, it is clear that much of the connotation people made between psychedelics and sex in the 1960s was the byproduct of the sexual revolution that was taking place at the time, and that was readily connected with the counterculture and experimentation with new mind-altering drugs.

Another example would be the popular equation of psychedelic experiences with non-belligerent thought and behavior. If only the leaders of the world would take LSD they would quickly “banish war, poverty and famine,” argued Paul McCartney in the 1960s. Similarly, Allen Ginbserg’s first reaction to the mushrooms was to grab the phone and place an international phone call to John F. Kennedy, Chairman Mao and Nikita Khrushchev (then leaders of their respective nations) in order to settle all that nonsense about the bomb once and for all. Jefferson Airplane’s singer Grace Slick went even further, conniving to slip a drop of acid into Nixon’s cup of tea in order to convince him to withdraw American militaristic presence from Vietnam, and develop generally more enlightened views.

Still from a historical, cross-cultural perspective, such ideas seem awfully naive. After all, the indigenous use of hallucinogens for the purposes of dark sorcery is just about as well spread as its use for healing. Psychedelics have been used in belligerent, militant contexts in a number of occasions in history. In fact, some of their earliest enthusiasts were proto-fascists such as Albert Hofmann’s close friend the author Ernst Jünger. As for Nixon, it is far from certain that taking psychedelics would have transformed his perspective on the Vietnam war. If anything, we might learn from the example of American cold war strategist Herman Kahn who spent the duration of his acid experience plotting napalm bombing strategies over mainland China. From my own personal experience living in Israel and visiting weekend psytrance parties where thousands of young men who serve as part of the Israeli military experiment with psychedelics, I had ample opportunity to observe that psychedelics do not automatically change individuals into left-leaning, peace dedicated individuals

The properties of psychedelic experience are more variant, it seems, than many of us would like to assume. In LSD Psychotherapy, eminent psychedelic therapist Stan Grof goes as far as to argue that there is not a single effect of LSD which repeats universally across individuals. The effects of psychedelics are always relative to the person and the culture in which they become embedded.

Psychedelics from a cultural perspective

To understand why psychedelics manifest as they do in our culture, we need to reflect on some of the cultural fantasies that have been imposed on them since they arrived at the scene in the mid-twentieth century. When psychedelics arrived to the west and became popularized within the counterculture, many of the concerns and preoccupations of that counterculture as well as of the surrounding society have been projected onto these agents, as kinds of collective fantasies, which ended up shaping how people imagined and conceived of them. Psychedelics came to reflect the culture of that time, and the various ideals of that era such as individualism, peacefulness and liberated sexuality. From the perspective of time, some of these associations seem dated, while other continue to resonate in our modern understanding of psychedelics, not necessarily because they are universal (cross-cultural examinations often show otherwise) but because of the continuity of culture.

Disentangling the cultural from the psychedelic remains a delicate issue to be approached carefully and consciously. For example, a much cited 2011 study by MacLean et al. showed that a high dose of psilocybin under supportive conditions produces an increase in the core personality trait openness. The results of the study were justifiably celebrated, since  no other study had previously demonstrated changes in personality in healthy adults after a singular event. Yet, should we construe the results study to mean that  psychedelics increase openness? Of course not! Doing that would discard the relevance of set and setting. Already in 1963, Leary et al., were careful to note the results of their classic study “Reactions to Psilocybin” are not generalizable, and represent the effects of psilocybin in the specific set and setting conditions under which the study was done. Would a high dose  of psilocybin increase openness with ISIS fighters in Syria taking it in a fundamentalist setting? Who knows? But evidence from cross-cultural examinations of hallucinogens, as the ones performed by Marlene Dobkin de Rios would suggest otherwise.

So how much of the way we view psychedelics is related to our distinct cultural set and setting and how much of it is inherent to the psychedelic experience itself?

It is not my intention to claim that none of these common beliefs about psychedelics are true. Indeed, some of them might be justified in some ways. Luke (2013) has written about the relationship of psychedelic experiences to eco-awareness, and while such effects might be contingent on certain types of set and setting, I could not find any conflicting evidence that would suggest that psychedelics might negate environmentalism. Perhaps there are universals in the psychedelic experience. Perhaps in some cases, the experience does make some individuals predisposed towards particular values. After all, it was specifically the openness trait that was changed in Maclean’s subjects and not other traits. And the logic of the notion that psychedelics tend to contribute to openness does make sense on many levels since these are substances that expose one to extraordinary realms of perception and open up possibilities of exploration. Other arguments about how psychedelics might promote individualist, or humanist-pacifist notions might be no less persuasive. Perhaps there are some values or ideas which the psychedelic experience naturally gravitates towards, even if not universally. This discussion need not be dichotomous, and possible answers need not be binary: pitting pharmacological essentialism vs. cultural constructivism.

There is much that still needs to be explored here. However, to understand the relationship between psychedelics and values, we need to more reflectively contemplate on their relationship with the culture. For too long we’ve undergone the error of assuming that certain features of the psychedelic community are there because they are inherent to the psychedelic experience. As psychedelics become increasingly prevalent as a cultural option it is time we adopted a more sophisticated approach to the question of psychedelics and their interaction with human culture.

 

Announcing the publication of American Trip: Set, Setting and The psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century

My book American Trip: Set, Setting and the Psychedelic Experience in the 20th Century is appearing today with MIT Press and I’m incredibly proud and excited!

I’ve started working on this book over a decade ago, and it became the center of an intellectual and personal odyssey that led, among other things, to a series of groundbreaking papers that expanded our understanding of psychedelic experiences and their relation to context (set and setting)

The concept of set and setting is undoubtedly the single-most central concept of modern psychedelic discourse. It points to the fact that the psychedelic experience has multiple potential modi. There is no ONE psychedelic experience, but rather that experience changes and transforms in relation to context.

The new book takes this idea to its final conclusion. It not only carefully describes how set and setting shapes experiences with psychedelics, but it also engages the broader more interesting questions like: how has the set and setting of contemporary Western culture shaped the psychedelic experience as we know it? How are our ideas of psychedelics and their effects shaped by our sociocultural settings?

The discourse on set and setting is commonly focused on the micro: Who is having the experience? Where? With whom? Carrying which intentions and expectations? Integrating how? These are all important questions, but the analysis was missing a key aspect: the fact that the set and the setting of a psychedelic experience are always rooted in a broader historical and cultural set and setting. All elements of individual set and setting are dependent on historical and sociocultural contexts. From expectations and intentions, to space, people and cultural beliefs.

American Trip is the first book to put the concept of set and setting in this wider context. It departs from the premise that the set and setting of a psychedelic experience never exists in a vacuum but always as a part of a broader historical and sociocultural context.

I’ve started writing of this book with an intriguing question on my mind: if we accept the common cliché that says that the sixties were like one long collective trip, what can the idea of set and setting teach us about the progression of this trip? i.e. what was the set and setting for this collective trip? How did the historical and cultural contexts of the 1960s shape this trip? And how have historical and cultural developments shaped the way we understand and experience psychedelics today?

The writing of this book led me to seven distinct schools of psychedelic research and use, from the psychotherapeutic to the military and from the spiritual to the artistic and the entrepreneurial. Each of these schools created its own micro-climate of set and setting, reshaping the psychedelic experience, producing wildly-divergent types of results, and – consequently – also immensely confusing researchers at the time.

The writing process also led me to explore a host of events and movements that shaped and sometimes continue to shape our perceptions of psychedelia: from the cold war to the sexual revolution, from cybernetics to the anti-psychiatry movement. Along the way I’ve learned to understand LSD as a psychedelic technology, literally a mind-manifesting technology – a technology that changes its colors, features and functions in relation to the various contexts in which it is injected.

I want to thank everybody who helped this book arrive to the world. My hope is that American Trip will provide us with new tools with which to think about psychedelics, and allow us to arrive at a richer, fuller understanding of psychedelic experiences in their social, historical and cultural contexts.

I know it’s not my place to say, but the new book is not only innovative and profound but also highly readable and entertaining, so I encourage you to get your own copy NOW (!) (here’s a link to BookDepository which seem to have better deals on the book) and let me know what you thought about it.

Here, finally, is the readers’ praise for American Trip.

American Trip presents a timely and invaluable guide to the crucial lessons that twentieth-century psychedelic history provides for the current psychedelic renaissance, and to using set and setting as a strategic tool for ensuring the healthy integration of psychedelics into society.
RICK DOBLIN, Founder and Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).

In clearly and rigorously exploring the single most consequential idea in psychedelic studies—the notion of set and setting—American Trip not only insightfully reframes the many histories of LSD, but offers a humanistic and reflexive alternative to the often simplistic discourse of today’s growing psychedelic industry.
ERIK DAVIS, author of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies.

American Trip guides its readers through the reflexive arts and sciences of set and setting used to study psychedelics, beckoning towards an intense pluriverse, full of beguiling guises, strange twists, and thrice-told tales.
NANCY D. CAMPBELL, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, author of OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose

In this landmark book, Hartogsohn enlarges the traditional parameters of set and setting by including the larger social-cultural matrix. This expanded definition provides a more sophisticated understanding on how non-drug factors determine the nature of any psychedelic drug experience.
RICK STRASSMAN MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of New Mexico School of Medicine Author, DMT: The Spirit Molecule

American Trip amounts to a sociological enlightenment of our drug culture. Hartogsohn’s vibrant book shows how 1960s America made psychedelics do what they did and suggests that these wondrous molecules will do something altogether different in other times and places.
NICOLAS LANGLITZ, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, author of Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain

Announcing the launch of the world’s first Psychedelic Video Museum

Problems are also opportunities to try something new and exciting. Sometimes, that something is an internet website. In April 2010 I had a recurring problem. Over the years I have developed a deep penchant for colorful, multidimensional psychedelic videos that paint pink arabesques in your mind. The only problem was that the types of unique, alternative mindstates in which such videos are superbly enjoyable are the same type of states where navigating the menus and folders on your desktop proves particularly daunting. God gives psychedelic nuts to those who have not teeth.

As a solution, I decided to start a blog that will serve as a reservoir for these psychedelic videos so that they are easily accessible to scroll through every time I need them. Since the problem appeared to be universal, I decided to make the blog public so that every person who is in dire need of psychedelic videos to feed their soul on, would be able to access them easily. And to make things more interesting I added a concept. The website will have specific rhythm: one psychedelic video a day. And so, the Daily Psychedelic Video (DPV) got started, the first website dedicated to psychedelic videos.

A month passed, and I realized that posting one psychedelic video every day is beyond my abilities. Consequently, the DPV got its international team of seven editors for seven days of the week. This had an immediate advantage. The concept of “psychedelic video” is somewhat vague and means different things to different people. When I started the website, I was surprised by the types of videos people sent me. Some of this stuff was really different from my own definition of a psychedelic video. When the other editors joined in, I understood they were essential to the project. Each had a different vision of psychedelic videos. Since then, we generally keep an open mind and one main guideline: a psychedelic video is every video that’s particularly enjoyable and amazing to watch in a psychedelic mindstate.

When we started the DPV in 2010 people told me we would run out of videos in a couple of months. There aren’t that many psychedelic videos out there! People I talked to could each recommend 2-3 videos worth having on the website, but it was not clear how many other psychedelic videos were out there. Actually, as we kept going, we discovered psychedelic videos are getting created faster than we can post them. The second decade of the 21st century saw a boom in the psychedelic video style. The rapid growth of websites like YouTube and Vimeo, the growing availability of digital production tools and the thriving of online artist communities led to a situation where more psychedelic videos were being made each month than had been made during a whole year or even a whole decade in the past. The widely publicized renaissance in psychedelic research was also accompanied by a renaissance in psychedelic creativity. Even pop stars like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Azealia Banks, Miley Cyrus and Nikki Minaj started churning their own psychedelic videos.

The years passed, and what started as a personal collection kept growing. Every year’s end, I spent dozens of hours watching hundreds of psychedelic videos to curate the year’s best-of list, and these growing lists led to public screenings and even a philosophical paper exploring the aesthetic principles and therapeutic qualities of psychedelic videos (available at the new museum). The website has long become the world’s largest collection of psychedelic videos. There was only one problem. When you got to the website what you got was today’s post, and then yesterday’s post. There was no way to navigate all the intricate richness of psychedelic beauty that was amassed over a decade of exploring psychedelic media.

Again, a problem, and again the solution was found in a new website. The new idea was to take all of the knowledge that was aggregated over a decade of collecting and curating psychedelic videos to create a website of a different type: a museum that includes carefully curated exhibitions of the best, most beautiful psychedelic video works ever created. Since the museum is virtual, we didn’t need the large sums of money you need to erect a museum in physical space. And since all this abundance was already made widely available through YouTube and Vimeo (we’re just collecting and embedding) we also didn’t need any money to buy the art.

The new museum includes 45 exhibitions arranged by theme, style, period and place.  You can find exhibitions like “Soviet Psychedelia,” “Japanese Psychedelia,” “1970s Psychedelia,” “Psychedelic Art,” “Psychedelic Cinema,” “Psychedelic Animation,” “Psychedelic Hip Hop,” “Tribal Psychedelia,” and “Psychedelic Activism.” Each of the exhibitions showcases a different aspect of psychedelic creativity.

We’ve built the museum planning to launch it on the 19th of April, on Bicycle Day, which is also the tenth anniversary for the DPV. Then corona happened and we started wondering whether now is the right time to launch. But as the pandemic spread, we realized that now, with people staying home, there is special value in this collection of beauty and creativity. Since the corona pandemic began many people have been talking about the need for virtual museums but many of the existing virtual museums are just pale versions of their physical selves. Digital JPG’s of 19th century oil paintings. The Psychedelic Video Museum is native to the net. It was designed to be virtual, and you don’t lose anything by visiting it from home.

Another thing that distinguishes the new museum is that we understand psychedelic video art as a mindstate dependent artform. It helps to be in a certain mindstate in order to fully appreciate these works of art. We don’t tell people how to get to this mindstate. Drug laws are obviously different from place to place. Some people can get there through meditation or other means, but definitely there is a strong connection between this artform and the psychedelic experience. These works benefit from full undivided attention, a contemplative gaze and even a certain level of ritual. It’s better to watch them on a big screen, with good speakers, and a willingness to let go and dissolve into them.

The new museum is a present for the world psychedelic community. It is non-profit, volunteer based, and designed to celebrate the beauty and richness of psychedelic creativity. On Sunday the 19th of April, at 3PM Eastern Time/8PM Greenwich Time, we will virtually convene to celebrate the 77th bicycle day, the tenth DPV anniversary and the launch of the psychedelic video museum in a psychomagical consecration ceremony which will move between various spots on the planet, open intergalactic gates, and including singing, dancing, speeches and occult rituals. A special psychedelic screening will take the viewers on a journey in a glowing land of psychedelic visuals. You are welcome to join us for the launch from home, and of course, come and visit and the Psychedelic Video Museum at any time you’d like.

Towards a science of psychedelic aesthetics

This article was originally published in XXV edition of the Psychedelic Press Journal (2018) p. 49-59. See here.

What is it about psychedelic visuals that makes them so arresting and absorbing? In Heaven and Hell Aldous Huxley argued that the arresting qualities of psychedelic visuals derives from their relation to mythic and preternatural realms of the mind. Many of the ancient mythologies (e.g. Greek, Celtic, Japanese, Hindu), Huxley noted, imagined and described the other, divine realms of heaven and the afterlife as realms of intensified color and light, as well as extraordinary visual beauty and harmony. These are places filled with gems, shining stones, or colorful flowers. Ezikel’s version of the Garden of Eden is filled with such luminescent gems. The New Jerusalem is constructed in glimmering buildings of shimmering stone. Plato’s world of the ideals is described where colors possess a purity and brilliance absent from their real-world manifestations.[1]

[An example of mutli-perspectivism in psychedelic video. Jeu]

Our fascination with gems, shimmering objects, colorful flowers, and translucent stained-glass windows stems from their resemblance to the glowing beauty gleaned in the visionary’s inner eye, argued Huxley. By viewing such objects of beauty, we are reminded of the visionary realms and can be transported into them.[2]

Huxley’s ideas about the ways in which visual perception and aesthetics underlie the mystical experience and define its features have provided some of the background to a web project I’ve started eight years ago, dedicated to the exploration of psychedelic video aesthetics. The Daily Psychedelic Video began with the simple premise of creating a daily stream of curated psychedelic videos. It started out as an individual effort but quickly evolved into a group blog, representing the tastes of some 15 psychedelic video aficionados who have since contributed to the site.

Over these years, we’ve been cultivating a growing selection of psychedelic videos, one video a day (after eight years these have amassed to 3,000, making this the largest psychedelic video collection on the web), compiling video lists, and arranging psychedelic screenings. What I’ve learnt in this period inspired me to think not only about psychedelic aesthetics in themselves, but about their connection to both the natural and preternatural worlds, and to the processes and dimensions of psychedelic healing.

The relationship between psychedelic visuals and the psychedelic experience

Where does one begin an exploration of the aesthetics of psychedelic video aesthetics? Perhaps by noting some of their common characteristics. Beyond their lavish colorful qualities, and their effusive use of light, noted by Huxley, psychedelic videos have several recurring and defining characteristics. Among these are the preoccupation with (1) multi-dimensionality (particularly in the use of fractals, see for instance Cyriak’s Hurray for Earth video, or this extreme Mandelbrot fractal zoom) as well as with (2) multi-perspectivism (See for example in George Schwitzgebel’s Jeu, in Wild Child’s Rillo Talk video, or in Let Forever Be video by the Chemical Brothers), an (3) fondness to the use of mandalas, tunnels, kaleidoscopic imagery and other types of harmonious symmetries (Busby Berkeley provides some examples from the 1930s, a video titled ‘L’illusion de Joseph’ does the same based on 19th century phenakistoscope images), and (4) perhaps most uniquely to the video format, a proclivity towards  the exploration of flow, fluidity and shifting contours and shapes (see for instance this meditative video of the ocean waves, this video by Nihls Frahm, or this one by Liquid stranger, the Love and Theft video by Studio Bilder, or this bird watching video). Finally, (5) psychedelic videos often showcase distinct synesthetic qualities which are arguably less common in other psychedelic media. Synesthesia—the mixing of senses, as in the seeing of sounds or the hearing of colors—is a common feature of the psychedelic state. In media that involve one sense only, such as paintings or music, synesthetic qualities are habitually implicit only. The music video genre, by contrast, is based on the combination of video and sound, so that it is, in a sense, inherently synesthetic. Psychedelic videos often draw on and develop these synesthetic qualities as seen in this captivating example by Andrew Thomas Huang or in many of the other examples above.

[Observe the use of multi-dimensionality in this psychedelic video by Cyriak]

Psychedelic mental and ideational phenomena, in other words, are reflected in their visual effects. It is perhaps because of this close relation between psychedelic visual phenomena and the ideational phenomena of psychedelics that psychedelic videos are able to recreate some of the disorienting, but also the harmonizing and healing effects that psychedelics tend to bring about.

The therapeutic language of nature and mathematics

How should one go about exploring the features and meanings of psychedelic video aesthetics? Unfortunately, works on psychedelic aesthetics have generally been few and far between. The fields of art studies and aesthetics have generally neglected to consider this area, concomitantly to their general disregard of the genre of visionary art. And while the last decade saw some renewed interest in psychedelic aesthetics (one reviewer spoke of a “psychedelic ‘turn’ in art criticism,”[6] a grossly exaggerated claim, in this author’s opinion) scholarly explorations of psychedelic videos are even more incipient than their equivalents looking into psychedelic art and design. A search of the literature was unable to produce even one paper dedicated to the subject of psychedelic video, their features, or properties. A remarkable state of non-knowledge. Moreover, it is unclear where exactly such a discussion would take place: a comprehensive view of this phenomena would need to consider not only the perspectives of art and aesthetics, but also those of cognitive psychology, evolutionary theory, religious studies and even computational theory, as I show below.

One possible entry point that might provide context and insights to the study of psychedelic aesthetics can be found in the domain of sacred geometry. Granted, the notion of a ‘sacred’ geometry seems remarkably out of sync with trademark academic language. Indeed, sacred geometry is not an academic field of study (though it has been the object of some academic attention). Nevertheless, the geometrical and natural patterns which it explores have fascinated philosophers, artists and mathematicians since millennia, capturing the attention of such varied luminaries as Pythagoras, Fibonacci and Leonardo de Vinci.[7] The ancient Greeks saw form and natural patterns as essential to the universe, part of a universal science which underlies the whole of reality. Naturalist scientists have long directed their attention to the harmonious mathematical ratios that are ubiquitous in nature: in the structure of crystals and snowflakes, the growth of ammonite, the vortexes of water streams and the movements of clouds. These contemplative explorers of nature found common and recurring ordered structures and patterns (spirals, waves, branching trees, and most famously the golden ratio and its related Fibonacci series) on different scales of natural phenomenon from conches and flowers to storm formations and galaxies.

[The use of symmetric patterns such as fractals and mandalas can already be observed in this 1930s video by psychedelic choreography maverick Busby Berkley]

In psychedelic videos we can observe many of the harmonious patterns and structures unveiled by earlier observers of nature and its patterns. Nevertheless, an additional element is present – an added dimension of dynamism, movement and unfolding. This element, of course, derives directly from the reality of nature, where things not only assume certain mathematically harmonious patterns, but also move in mathematically harmonious ways.

This dimension of movement and fluidity, which is absent from visionary and psychedelic art, but present in psychedelic video, is crucial to the meditative and visionary experience, which is not static but dynamic. Humans are naturally drawn to observing the movement of the clouds, the water in a stream, or the flames in a fire. In the psychedelic state our preponderance upon these natural phenomena seems to increase multifold. Psychedelic voyagers have been known to enter deep states of absorption while observing clouds, flames, streams or trees moving in the wind.

The pleasure we derive from watching these patterns of movement unfold in natural phenomena has more than just aesthetic implications. As anybody who has spent their time attentively observing such phenomena might recognize, they can have calming, soothing and even healing effect. Philosophers and naturalists have long sought inspiration and healing in the observance of nature and its patterns. Following various contemplative traditions which argue that when we are truly absorbed in the contemplation of an object, our minds become indistinguishable from the thing, it is easy to see how the creation of inner calm and harmony can be assisted by taking in external manifestations of such harmony and consonance. By observing the ratios and proportions of nature we are, in a sense, aligning our minds with perennial cosmic laws that bring order, solace and satisfaction to the mind. This recognition is part and parcel of countless religious and spiritual traditions. Religious structures such as mosques, temples and cathedrals utilize the proportions and patterns of sacred geometry to inspire awe and religiosity in their visitors.[8] Taosim teaches the art of Feng Shui, which aims to inspire harmony within one’s personal dwelling place. This principle of using external harmonious structures to inspire inner harmony can also be found in entheogenic religions, which pay homage to the principles of set and setting, and to the notion that a well-arranged physical setting is paramount to inspiring inner calm and harmony. The Santo Daime entheogenic religion utilizes sacred geometry in the arrangement of space, as well as in the arrangement of the table (mesa) to which participants are called upon to direct their attention in the search of inner harmony.

[Observe the synesthetic qualities of psychedelic video, in this extraordinary example by Andrew Huang]

“Nature is data” as one gifted psychedelic video artist and mystic once put it to me. By watching the movement of clouds, streams, flames and tress in the wind, we are able to directly observe in physical form the universal mathematical laws that move creation. These laws that move things exist on many different scales and levels, from the conch and the flower, to storms and galaxies, but presumably also in computer algorithms, the movements of the stock market and other man-made phenomena. These perennial relations, ranging from the miniscule to the gigantic, and from the natural to the man-made, are held together by the language of physics and mathematics that permeates the cosmos and directs its movement. Digital physics has long promoted the idea that the universe could be seen as a sort of gigantic digital processor, computing some irreducible mathematical/evolutionary problem, with each electron in the universe representing a singular bit, in a what could be viewed as a cosmic computer.[9] Even ocean waves with their countless streams and splashes could be viewed as calculating some irreducible and inconceivably complex problem that our most advanced devices and processors would be grossly incapable of precisely measuring or computing.

Many works of psychedelic video utilize these natural patterns and mathematical formulas of change to inspire joy and awe in their viewers. The same features of the harmonious movement of a branch in the wind, or seaweed in the stream, can be found in many of the psychedelic videos that observe or imitate the flowing harmonies of nature. By viewing these perennial ratios and patterns on the screen we are transported and able to connect to inner sources of order, harmony and healing.

If psychedelic videos can inspire deep states of joy and healing, as I have observed them do countless times in private and public screenings, then their significance transcends the purely aesthetic and becomes therapeutic. As noted above, the principles and practices of set and setting — the idea that the context of psychedelic experimentation shapes its content — encourage us to search for suitable forms (physical or otherwise) that might provide supportive and inspiring context for psychedelic experiences. In the same way that art and artistic reproductions have been used in psychedelic therapy from its inception,[10] meditative video aesthetics can be used as part of therapeutic processes. Moreover, such mind-transforming videos might prove to have measurable and potentially useful psychological and physical effects on their viewers in and of themselves.

[Fluidity is another key characteristic of psychedelic videos. The video Infinite Now demonstrates spectacularly]

Understanding psychedelic video might prove instructive and useful not only for the fields of art, aesthetics and therapy. Psychedelic video aesthetics might prove to be a worthy object of investigation for other areas including cognitive science and evolutionary theory. The human propensity to observe, become absorbed and find satisfaction and solace in certain recurring, mathematically-patterned, aesthetic phenomena, offers a phenomenon worthy of the attention of those interested in understanding human cognition and its evolutionary roots. Where does our fascination with such ordered forms come to? How do they bring alterations of body and mind?  What can they teach us about the way our mind and its interactions with the world?

Towards a science of psychedelic aesthetics

So what prevents the study of psychedelic or meditative video aesthetics from becoming a field? The inertness of research on the subject is particularly curious when contrasting it to the growing scientific interest in other comparable cognitive phenomena such as the perception of cuteness. Over the past years, a growing field of research extending from psychology and evolutionary science to neuroscience and cultural studies has come to focus on human perception of cuteness, producing hundreds and thousands of scientific papers. This research identifies on recognizing the distinct physical traits that facilitate the perception of cuteness (such as large eyes, bulging craniums and retreating chins), but also on its evolutionary sources (the need to ensure parents care for their offspring), behavioral reactions to cuteness, and its hormonal, genetic and neuroscientific substrates.[11]

The study of cuteness presents a possible model for the study of psychedelic video aesthetics. Unfortunately, this task has not yet been undertaken by any of the relevant academic disciplines, and this ignorance and peculiar incuriosity is accentuated by comparison with the wealth of interest and attention afforded to phenomena such as cuteness. It is time we started to study the universal and perennial forms of beauty and grace that are ubiquitous to human experience, nature and the arts, and which are equally omnipresent in psychedelic experiences and aesthetics. By studying such phenomena, we can advance not only our appreciation of the human mind, its development and proclivities, but also come across new methods and techniques with potential life-enhancing value of optimizing therapy and conducing the healing of the psyche.

[1] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell (NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2011).

[2] Huxley.

[3] Heinrich Kluver, “Mechanisms of Hallucinations,” in Studies in Personality, ed. Q McNemar and M.A. Merrill (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942); Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Beyond the Milky Way: Hallucinatory Imagery of the Tukano Indians (UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1978); James L. Kent, Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason (CreateSpace, 2010).

[4] See for instance Philip K. Dick, VALIS, Reissue edition (Boston: Mariner Books, 2011); Stanislav Lem, The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy, 1 edition (San Diego: Mariner Books, 1985); and also the work of Huxley and Leary on the concepts of reducing valves and reality tunnels covered in Ido Hartogsohn, “Psychedelic Society Revisited: On Reducing Valves, Reality Tunnels and The Question of Psychedelic Culture.,” ed. Robert Dickins and Andy Roberts, Psychdelic Press 2015, no. IV (August 2015): 83–99.

[5] Terence Mckenna, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History, 1st ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1992); Katherine A. MacLean, Matthew W. Johnson, and Roland R. Griffiths, “Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness,” Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England) 25, no. 11 (November 2011): 1453–61, https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881111420188; Matthew M. Nour, Lisa Evans, and Robin L. Carhart-Harris, “Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 0, no. 0 (April 26, 2017): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/02791072.2017.1312643; Taylor Lyons and Robin L. Carhart-Harris, “Increased Nature Relatedness and Decreased Authoritarian Political Views after Psilocybin for Treatment-Resistant Depression,” Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2018, 0269881117748902; Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural Correlates of the LSD Experience Revealed by Multimodal Neuroimaging,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 17 (April 26, 2016): 4853–58, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1518377113.

[6] Orit Halpern, “Psychedelic Vision,” BioSocieties 8, no. 2 (June 1, 2013): 239, https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2013.11.

[7] Stephen Skinner, Sacred Geometry: Deciphering the Code (Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2009).

[8] Skinner.

[9] Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science, 1 edition (Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002); David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (Penguin Books, 1998).

[10] Betty G Eisner and Sidney Cohen, “Psychotherapy with Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,” Journal of Mental Disease, 1958, 127 (1958): 528–39; Timothy Leary, George Litwin, and Ralph Metzner, “Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in a Supportive Environment,” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 137 (1963): 561–73.

[11] See for instance Morten L. Kringelbach et al., “On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20, no. 7 (2016): 545–558; Melanie L. Glocker et al., “Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults,” Ethology 115, no. 3 (2009): 257–263; J. W. S. Bradshaw and E. S. Paul, “Could Empathy for Animals Have Been an Adaptation in the Evolution of Homo Sapiens?,” Animal Welfare 19, no. 2 (2010): 107–112; Douglas Watt, “Toward a Neuroscience of Empathy: Integrating Affective and Cognitive Perspectives,” Neuropsychoanalysis 9, no. 2 (2007): 119–140; R. Sprengelmeyer et al., “The Cutest Little Baby Face: A Hormonal Link to Sensitivity to Cuteness in Infant Faces,” Psychological Science 20, no. 2 (2009): 149–154.

The Altered Mind: Psychedelics & the Ethics of Mind-Enhancement — Event and Response to Rick Doblin

Yesterday evening I had the great privilege and honor of hosting Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, as part of an event organized by the Harvard STS Program. Rick, whose been leading the effort to bring MDMA into a medicine since the 1980s is also a Kennedy School alumnus. He graduated from HKS in 2001 with a dissertation on the regulation of the medical uses of psychedelics and marijuana. Rick can be considered an exemplary alumnus for an institution such as HKS which is dedicated to educating and empowering public policy reformers: he has been a key figure in bringing about a huge and long awaited public policy revolution — the renewal of psychedelic research, and the medicalization of psychedelics. It was for this reason among others, that it felt particularly meaningful to bring him back to HKS.

The event was titled “The Altered Mind: Psychedelics & the Ethics of Mind-Enhancement.” It sought to adumbrate and discuss the social, political and ethical questions surrounding the resurgence of psychedelic research (see the abstract here). Apart from Rick we also had an excellent panel, which included Harvard Prof. bioethicist Dan Wikler, as well as New School Anthropology Prof. Nicolas Langlitz and myself. The whole thing was moderated by Prof. Sheila Jasanoff, director of the STS program at Harvard.

Here is a transcription of my response to Rick Doblin’s presentation, which explores some of the intersections between drug discourses and normativity.

***

 

Thank you all to coming to this event which was intended to invoke some of the fundamental and rarely asked questions surrounding psychedelic research and drug research in general.

I want to continue on some of the issues and questions that were raised by the previous speakers and include them within an even broader discussion which I believe we should be having about the normative issues framing psychedelic research and medicine.

Before we go into that, it should be noted that drug laws and regulations have been regularly and intimately shaped by questions of normativity. There is rich historical and sociological literature that details the many ways in which anti-drug campaigns and drug laws have historically been inextricable from racism and the persecution of racial, cultural, and political minorities: In the case of marihuana these were Mexican immigrants, Chinese immigrants in the case of opium, black people in the case of cocaine. In each of these cases, anti-drug campaigns were accompanied by strong sentiments of racial belligerence, opposition to minority groups and to the social values associated with these groups.

The case of psychedelics was not different, though admittedly the persecuted group here was not a racial group but a cultural and political group which included hippies and political radicals.

Back in the 1960s psychedelic use was strongly associated with specific cultural and political trends such as pacifism, opposition to the war in Vietnam and anti-authoritarianism. Psychedelics were widely understood by their users, as well as by their detractors, to be drugs which foment opposition to certain cultural norms including consumerism, materialism, nationalism and the work-ethic. They were considered to undermine the very normative and ideological foundations of civilization. Many of their users saw them as harbingers of a new kind of society. “Present social establishments had better be prepared for change” Timothy Leary argued at the time. He predicted that mind-altering drugs would radically transform human nature and society.

Leary’s attempt for a psychedelic cultural revolution did not lead to the expected results, and over the past couple of decades, the story of the so called ‘psychedelic renaissance’ has been inextricable from the trend of ‘mainstreaming psychedelics,’ the distancing of psychedelic research from its earlier associations with the counterculture and political radicalism.

Rather than transforming society through countercultural activity, later day psychedelic advocates agreed that the better route goes from within the culture. After suffering from their association with 1960s political discord and strife, psychedelic advocates vied to bring them back as a bipartisan issue, which I think explains some of the issues that were raised here today regarding psychedelic research and its connections to conservative groups.

Psychedelic activists of the 1960s burned draft cards, but those of the 21st century provide therapy to Army veterans and this must be seen as part of an effort to rehabilitate psychedelics in the public eye and change their image from drugs which challenge the social order to drugs that seek to ‘heal’ it, as some psychedelic advocates would say, or perhaps even support it, as others might say.

At the same time, psychedelic research is still associated and to some extent dependent on a broader community with distinct cultural resonances. This wider group, which meets together at conferences and events, still provides financial, moral and cultural support for the cause of psychedelic research. The big question for the members of this culture is whether the benefits of the medicalized mainstreaming of psychedelics justify the normative costs. In other words: to what extent does entering the scientific and medical game dilute what members of the community perceive to be fundamental, core psychedelic values.

While many advocates argue that medicalized discourse falls short of doing full justice to the more radical sociopolitical implications of psychedelics, in most cases the community surrounding these agents has been overwhelmingly supportive of the contemporary wave of research. The subjection of psychedelics to the analytic gaze of science is considered a necessary step for gaining scientific recognition of their merit and securing their future availability. This, in spite the fact that many users and advocates consider legal access to psychedelic therapy and experimentation an inalienable human right. This idea of psychedelics as a human right is justified and expressed either through reliance on anthropological data about the historical ubiquity of psychoactive use in human societies, or in the language of cognitive liberty – the assertion that the right to alter one’s state of mind according to one’s wishes is tantamount to the right to free speech.

So far, I’ve described the mainstreaming approach and its reception from within the psychedelic community. Rick has been a chief proponent of this approach, which argues that the value of psychedelics can be recognized by all sides of the cultural and political map. And yet, at the same time psychedelics are also promoted as fostering certain kinds of values which in today’s political climate seem to relate quite clearly to a specific part of the political landscape. Psychedelics have been widely proposed to promote values of eco-awareness, universalism, anti-authoritarianism, tolerance and openness. The question of whether and how comfortably these values sit together with the mainstreaming of psychedelics, and whether the political implications of psychedelics might subvert their bipartisanship remains unsettled in my eyes.

If we assume that there exists a relationship between drug laws and normativity: that psychoactive drugs which alter minds help produce certain types of societies, and that drug norms and laws are shaped by the agreement or disagreement, between the values held by society, on the one hand, and the values associated with certain drugs, on the other hand – then we might assume that it is not per accident that the drugs most in use in late capitalist society are drugs which have been described as drugs of productivity and adjustment such as caffeine, Ritalin, Adderall, Zoloft and Prozac.

One useful distinction in this regard is made by communications professor Corey Anton who speaks about two archetypal types of drugs. The first type is tight drugs, which help their users become more attuned to the demands of society, without causing any dramatic perceptual effects. The second type are loose drugs, which explicitly alter consciousness and free individuals from the grip of normative values. By contrast to the tight drugs which fuel civilization, the psychedelic experience, has been popularly associated with changes and challenges to social values.

The question of whether this is indeed the case, remains open to debate. There is evidence to suggest that psychedelic experiences promote free thinking and  liberal values, but there is also historical and ethnological data about groups who used psychedelics while engaging in sorcery, war and human sacrifice; and although predominantly identified with leftist politics, psychedelics have also had some supporters from the right.

I would argue that psychedelics might indeed support liberalization, but that their exact social effects depend on the set and the setting, or the context in which these drugs are being used. Psychedelics can be used to liberalize, individualize, and radicalize, but they can also be used to strengthen communal structures and values, as shown by ethnological research.

The return of psychedelic research therefore presents us with a question regarding the kinds of values society wishes to espouse. We already have legally sanctioned use of drugs to enhance productivity and facilitate adjustment to society’s values. Are we willing to approve drugs that are assumed to promote social values such as openness, tolerance and opposition to authoritarianism? And if, on the other hand, we assume that it is set and setting that shape the normative effects of psychedelics, what kind of set and setting do we put in place to determine the types of values that psychedelics end up promoting?

These are a few of the issues that I see coming up, and which, to my mind, underscore the crucial normative questions that any discussion about the social role of psychoactives in general and psychedelics in particular must take into account.

New paper on the role of meaning augmentation in psychedelic therapy, spirituality and creativity

Beyond running a couple of internet blogs dedicated to psychedelic culture, in my spare time I also do academic work in the field of psychedelics. This past year I’ve had a chance to bring psychedelics to Harvard, where I’m now a visiting postdoc (and if you’re around the Boston area, this Wednesday I will be organizing an event that will bring MAPS founder and executive director Rick Doblin to this Alma Mater, the Harvard Kennedy School, on the 28th of March, at 4PM).

Two weeks ago, a new paper of mine was published in a special issue of Frontiers of Neuroscience, edited by psychedelic research pioneer Rick Strassman, and dedicated to the subject of psychedelic medicine. My new paper, “The Meaning-Enhancing Properties of Psychedelics and Their Mediator Role in Psychedelic Therapy, Spirituality, and Creativity,” continues on the path laid out by my two earlier papers: “Constructing drug effects: A history of set and setting,” (2017) and “Set and setting, psychedelics and the placebo response: An extra-pharmacological perspective on psychopharmacology” (2016). Both those earlier papers explored the issue of set and setting – the contextual factors (such as personality, expectation, intention and physical, social or cultural environment) which shape psychedelic experiences. The first paper looked at the history and evolution of the concept of set and setting since the 19th century, while the second one examined the relationships and correlations between the concept of set and setting and that of placebo, and how considering these two concepts in conjunction might enrich our understanding of both set and setting and placebo.

My new paper discusses the importance of meaning enhancement in psychedelic experience. While the words set and setting are not in the title this time, this is nevertheless a further development of the two earlier papers. Set and setting is critical for psychedelic experimentation because meaning is augmented and intensified by psychedelics so that any minimal cue can be radically amplified —whether positive or negative— leading to the “heaven and hell” character of these substances, as Aldous Huxley put it. In my new paper I argue that this meaning-augmenting effect of psychedelics might be their most important one and look at the ways in which the meaning-augmenting aspects of psychedelic action facilitate psychedelic therapy, spirituality and creativity. The paper is open access so you can read it here in full.

 

7 images of Drug Molecules and What They Can Teach Us (Without Knowing Anything about Chemistry)

I’m not a big expert on the chemistry of psychoactive drugs, but last week I had the opportunity of examining the structural formulas of common psychoactive molecules and was greatly amazed and amused. On the one hand, the structural formulae of chemicals are based on writing conventions that have nothing to do with the actual chemical substance or its effects. On the other hand, the pictures of structural formulas of psychoactives give rise to surprisingly vivid imagery and associations, imparting some rather interesting impressionistic lessons on the effects of drugs.

 Sugar

sugar

 

Sugar looks like it’s currently in the midst of an ecstatic and jubilant dance, holding its own hands and swinging around in wild circles, rising to the firmament on the waves of glucose until it reaches terminal exhaustion. It is like a merry go round on which our whole culture is riding up and down.

 Heroin

molecule4-heroin

By contrast to the joyous structure of sugar, heroin’s molecular structure appears like a train wreck – something that’s painful to look at. Heroin looks like two figures getting squashed one on top of the other, or forcefully clenching each other. Maybe the image points to addiction, which does not let go of the individual, and the individual who does not let go of their addiction. Or maybe it is the friend who is gripping the addict in support, telling them: “I won’t let leave you alone.”

Caffeine

caffeine-molecule 

Caffeine seems like a very straight, even uptight character. Their head stands erect at the top of a long neck and they appear like a three-armed waiter, holding three trays with cups full of carbon and hydrogen atoms – always ready to be of service.

Cocaine

cocaine

Cocaine looks like a scuba-diver with diving fins and a lever stuck up his behind. His head, on the right side of the drawing, is only tenuously and almost accidentally attached to his body, which is floating in space, and the expression on his face says everything, or nothing…

LSD

lsd_structural_formulae_v-1

LSD looks like a caterpillar maliciously erecting itself on his hind legs. It has one scary, wide-opened eye  that is carefully observing you and two evil antenna tentacles, with which it is about to attack you using hydrogen and carbon atoms, while you’re in the middle of a horror trip.

DMT

dmt-png

DMT seems like a mightily efficient creature without many superfluous organs. It weighs just enough so it can carry and hold up the key that opens the doors of perception.

 

Alcohol

alcohol-png

 

Alcohol looks like board meeting around a long, rectangular table in an alcoholic beverage company. It also looks like a two armed cross which has been laid on its side, and maybe it is our society’s religion, only skewed.