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Beyond Psychedelic Culture

September 27, 2020

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.


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