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WI State Journal article on UW psychedelic research

The Wisconsin State Journal interviewed me for their article in today’s paper about psychedelic research at the UW School of Pharmacy. In UW Madison tunes in to ‘magic mushroom’ medicine, I talk about my experiences as a volunteer subject in a research study on the effects of psilocybin. The photo below shows Karen Cooper, one of the study guides, in the session room. (Photo: M.P. King, WI State Journal)

Session room

 

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What’s so great about consciousness?

Consciousness is everywhere. At any rate, it’s hard to avoid the deluge of books, articles, conferences, online discussions, et cetera, that flog the topic of consciousness from the heights of academic seriousness to the depths of pop culture folly.

Fortunately, the discussion often comes with a disclaimer about the slippery nature of the subject. Just what the heck is consciousness anyway? What you don’t see so often, though, is any suggestion that consciousness might not be worth all the fuss.

Sure, we assume it’s important, but we would, right? Humans experience consciousness front and center every day, but does that make it more significant in the great scheme of things than, say, our toes or digestion? What if our cult of consciousness is just a symptom of pride?

If and when we figure out how consciousness operates, it may turn out to be the greatest discovery of all time, but until then we can’t jump to conclusions. If we’re going to be honest, I’d say we need to admit that consciousness, if and when we understand it, may not amount to much.

So, keeping in mind that I’m hardly qualified to have an opinion on this subject, let’s imagine a scenario. Many years from now, the world’s top psychologists, neurophysiologists, cognitive scientists, et cetera, assemble at their big conference and go on TV and make an announcement something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, after decades of research and theorizing, we’ve arrived at a definition of consciousness that may seem anticlimactic to some but is nevertheless, we believe, the best the human race will ever have.

“In our opinion, consciousness is an evolutionary glitch that makes experiences in short term memory seem especially vivid for a period of about 18 seconds. In other words, it’s a mistake and we can move on. Thank you.”

I’m not proposing this idea as a serious explanation of consciousness. I am saying, however, that the real explanation, if and when we get one, may be just as mundane.

If that happens, how will the world of conscious humans react? Perhaps like Republicans in Congress react to the scientific consensus on global warming. The House of Representatives will pass the “Restoring Respect for Consciousness and Working American Families Act.” A panel of celebrity experts on Oprah will reassure us that, despite the negative stories promoted in the mainstream media, consciousness is the key to a healthy lifestyle, success in the stock market, and time travel.

Actually, we might not have to wait long. Maybe we’ve already made up our minds. If the real consciousness ever shows up, we might prefer the version on daytime TV.

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Dying to Know

Here’s a new documentary about a remarkable and historic friendship. If you have any interest in psychedelics or eastern spirituality, you probably know about the work of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert. Dying to Know follows their relationship from the early days of psychedelic research at Harvard to Leary’s death and beyond. Dying to Know–produced and directed by Gay Dillingham and narrated by Robert Redford–opens in the Bay Area on July 10th.

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A turning point for psychedelics

The psychedelic community is about to get a lot bigger. Up to now it was a select group of visionaries and thrill-seekers. In ten years, however, when psychedelics are available by prescription, the biggest demand may come from ordinary folks. The people who check into clinics for psychedelic therapy will be cancer patients, war vets, alcoholics and others looking for relief more than cosmic enlightenment.

Enlightenment will occur, of course, and spread out way beyond the salons of the cognoscenti. How will society change when anyone can walk into a local clinic and trade their fear for inner peace?

There’s so much promise, but there are also a bunch of obstacles. The folks from middle America who could really benefit from psychedelics won’t get the help they need if they’re held back by prejudice and misinformation. That’s where we come in. It’s up to us—the members of the psychedelic community—to clear the path.

We’re like the pioneers in covered wagons who drove west through the unknown. Once they settled the new land, they held out their hands to the folks back home, the farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers who followed once they knew it was safe.

Now it’s our turn to hold out our hands. We’re the psychedelic welcoming committee.

It’s not too early to start crafting a friendly message for newcomers who are suspicious of the whole business. Something like:

“Welcome, friend. We’re here to help you have a good journey. If you follow the guidelines, you’ll be fine. The psychedelic experience is natural and deeply human. You may encounter surprises, but you won’t be alone. We’re your companions all the way and we have a lot of experience bringing travelers safely home.”

The great work that began with Albert Hoffman is about to begin in earnest. We’ve had the experience to ourselves for long enough. It’s time to open the door and welcome the liberal and the conservative, the sick and the well, the people we love and the people we hate. The great work won’t be accomplished until everyone has the opportunity to cross the threshold.

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LSD: The Opera

Yes, it’s an opera based on Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD. The orchestra contains a number of instruments designed by Harry Partch, including the Diamond Marimba and the Cloud Chamber Bowls, which are “tuned with 43 tones to the octave.” The LSD molecule appears as a character performed by three sopranos. Who says classical music is boring? Details at LSD: The Opera.

 

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International Forum on Consciousness

The annual Bioethics Forum, held here in Madison every May, is now the International Forum on Consciousness. Here’s a description of the conference from the website of the host, the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center:

Coordinated by Promega Corporation and the BTC Institute, the International Consciousness Forum promises a lively two days of information-sharing and discussion regarding important – and often challenging – topics related to the exploration of consciousness. As always, the Forum will bring together a wonderful group of presenters. Representative of diverse disciplines, they will share their life experiences and perspectives, this year as related to Conscious Evolution: The Awakening.

This conference–May 7th and 8th this year–is always one of the most interesting and exciting events in Madison. I hope to see you there.

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Brazilian prisoners attend Santo Daime services

A Brazilian prison grants some inmates a brief furlough to attend services of the Santo Daime religion where they consume the psychedelic beverage ayahausca. According to this article in the New York Times, about 15 prisoners a month, including murderers and rapists, visit a temple in the rainforest along with therapists and prison guards who sometimes drink the Daime tea.

“’I’m finally realizing I was on the wrong path in this life,’ said Celmiro de Almeida, 36, who is serving a sentence for homicide at a prison four hours away on a road that winds through the jungle. ‘Each experience helps me communicate with my victim to beg for forgiveness,’ said Mr. de Almeida, who has taken ayahuasca nearly 20 times at the sanctuary here.”

This innovative program appealed to Brazilian authorities as a way to ease the burden on the nation’s overcrowded, underfunded, and violent prison system. The American penal system is a national nightmare and reform seems to be one area where conservatives and liberals can find common ground. We have our own Santo Daime churches. Perhaps they could help.

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Shroder takes the plunge

As he was working on his book Acid Test (reviewed in the previous post), Tom Shroder decided to conduct some in-depth research. His account of his first psychedelic journey in 35 years appears here on reset.me. Shroder’s lucid style makes his story far more readable than the usual trip report. I can’t recommend that you go it alone like Shroder did–experienced guides can provide a deeper and safer journey–but his tale of psychedelic rediscovery is well worth your time.

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