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“Neurons to Nirvana,” the one-stop doc

“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”

— Richard Nixon, 1971

Today, four decades after Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs, 85% of Americans support the use of marijuana for medical purposes. 54% support outright legalization. There’s still a long way to go, but there’s hope for a happy ending to a sad story.

The situation with psychedelics isn’t as clear-cut. Although the medical and scientific potential of psychedelic drugs was apparent back in the 1950s, politics won out. The substances were banned, the research halted, and the whole topic buried in a very deep hole.

The story of the psychedelic renaissance is, well, a long, strange, trip. It’s all on display in Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines, a new documentary on the politics, culture, and science of psychedelic drugs.

Directors Oliver Hackenbull and Mikki Willis collected film clips dating back to the days when LSD was a laboratory curiosity. We see footage of the Good Friday Experiment in 1962 when psychologists administered psilocybin to a group of divinity students, establishing the mystical nature of the psychedelic experience. We learn that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was an enthusiastic proponent of LSD for treating addiction.

The hippies are there, of course, with the long hair and loud music that scared the Silent Majority into line with the drug war. One revealing clip from this period shows a clean-cut young woman reading a pamphlet titled “LSD: How Can We Fight Back?” The story could have easily ended there.

They say that “Only Nixon can go to China.” Likewise, the public faces of the new psychedelic renaissance bear little resemblance to Timothy Leary. They’re mainstream MDs and scientists with impeccable credentials. Neurons to Nirvana features a number of them.

There’s Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins and Charles Grob of UCLA, both of whom have studied the use of psilocybin for treating end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients. Ingrid Pacey, M.D., studies the use of MDMA/Ecstasy for treating PTSD. The who’s who includes Stan Grof, David Nichols, Stephen Ross, David Metzner, and many others.

Most important, we hear from patients, people suffering from serious medical conditions who found relief through drugs that were feared and condemned for half a century. These are the people who will bring the psychedelic renaissance to the mainstream public. Regardless of your politics, everybody has a grandparent with cancer, a spouse with a drinking problem, or a friend who came back from the Iraq war with PTSD. The village comes together when there’s a little girl trapped in the well.

Neurons to Nirvana provides an excellent introduction to a vast and messy topic. There are other films that cover specific aspects of the psychedelic story in greater detail, but none that give a better overview. It’s the one to have if you’re just having one.

Neurons to Nirvana is available on iTunes and on Mangu.TV. It’s also playing in selected theatres around the country.

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“Neurons to Nirvana” in Madison

The Wisconsin premier of “Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines” will be on Monday, April 7, at 5:00 PM in the Marquee Theatre at UW Union South. This documentary explores the new science of psychedelics with some of the leading researchers in the field. After the film, there will be a Q&A session with director Oliver Hockenhull, UW scientist Nick Cozzi, Northern Illinois University psychologist Thomas Roberts, and therapist Bruce Sewick. See you all there?

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“Machine elves” identified at last?

The other day I was listening to a Shpongle album with a song that included an audio clip of Terence McKenna. They sped up his voice and distorted it to make him sound like an insectoid alien or, perhaps, one of the “self-replicating fractal machine elves” he encountered under the influence of DMT.

Anyway, while the music was playing, my wife walked into the living room. The following conversation ensued:

My wife: “What’s that?”

Me: “Shpongle.”

My wife: “Oh, I thought you were watching the Teletubbies.”


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Psychedelics and autism

The most recent Psychedelic Salon podcast features new research on the use of psychedelics (specifically MDMA/”Ecstasy”) for treating social anxiety due to autism.

Psychologist Alicia Danforth surveyed autistic adults with MDMA experience. Many reported sudden, dramatic, and long-lasting improvements in social anxiety due to the use of MDMA. These reports are anecdotal and Danforth emphasized the need for further, quantitative research.

To that end, Danforth and UCLA Psychologist Charles Grob are currently recruiting adult volunteers with autism for a clinical trial of MDMA therapy. More information is available on

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Psychedelics and dreaming

Lots of people have commented on the similarities between dreaming and the psychedelic experience. We may be closer to a neurological explanation, according to this article by Robin Carhart-Harris and David Nutt of Imperial College, London. (Via the Psychedelic Frontier community on Goggle Plus.)

French researchers produced “transient dreamlike states” by electrical stimulation of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), a central part of the brain’s default mode network (DMN). Carhart-Harris and Nutt compared these results with their own studies of the brain during the psychedelic experience.

They report that changes in the PCC were “the most conspicuous and reliable finding of our psilocybin imaging studies.” They also note the role of the PCC in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep associated with dreams. Psilocybin and other psychedelics bring on rapid eye movement during sleep.

Another similarity suggests that psychedelics may have long-term therapeutic benefits. The patient in the French study reported a sustained period of “absolute happiness” after the experiment. Likewise, some subjects in psychedelic studies report a long-lasting sense of well-being after a few sessions.

Carhart-Harris and Nutt speculate that “psilocybin produces a sustained alteration in PCC and/or DMN activity that could account for its putative therapeutic potential.” They intend to follow up by testing the use of psilocybin for treating major depression.

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I’m delighted that news of this blog is spreading via Facebook and other channels. Welcome, one and all! I hope you’ll enjoy your visit. If you have any questions, suggestions, useful links, or anything else you’d like to see here, please let me know.

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Your inner guru ran off with his secretary

When I was in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement back in the Seventies, I heard Maharishi describe what it’s like to start meditating. He compared it to looking at a mountain range through a zoom lens.

Before you learn to meditate, your lens is zoomed in all the way and you see the peak of a single mountain. Then you start meditating and the effect is like zooming out to see all the mountains at once. When you get the wide-angle view, you realize how much you were missing.

That’s exactly what it felt like for me. On the day I learned to meditate, I began to notice clouds, textures, bird songs, decorations—all the things that used to be invisible.

I’ve had similar experiences with psychedelics. That’s just how it works—once the inner noise shuts off, you start to notice things. That can be a great opportunity, but it can also be a set-up.

For example, one night in my wayward youth, I dropped a tab of acid and went for a walk in the park. I became mesmerized by a streetlamp that buzzed and flickered whenever I walked by. For one evening, I believed I had the power to short-circuit streetlamps.

Our minds are programmed to detect patterns of cause and effect. We crank out patterns and connections nonstop and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we’re dead wrong. Right and wrong are secondary, however, as long as we keep making connections.

We’re also programmed for certainty. Our brains can generate a sense of hard, cold reality and attach that certainty to the plainest truth or the flimsiest delusion.

Most of the time, we get by. So what if Aunt Doris blames her kidney stones on the full moon? We can mistake correlation for causality a good chunk of the time and still do okay.

Of course, there’s a big risk once you add charismatic leaders. They’ll happily tell you that the world hangs on your own personal sins or virtues. Maharishi got a lot of mileage from that sort of thing. To this day, there are still people in his movement who believe that their meditation is the only thing preventing World War III.

If you’re wary of charisma, you can run when you see a white robe, but you can’t hide. Your own mind will come after you. It’s fueled by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and it’s eager to lead you down the garden path of total bullshit.

Would you even pause to question your own experiences? You’re way more charismatic and authoritative than any guru, at least to yourself.

I can’t say for sure whether people who practice meditation or use psychedelics are any more prone to magical thinking than others. However, I’ve spent a lot of time in both communities, and I have to tell you that the ground is pretty soggy with peculiar ideas.

Here’s my pet theory. I think that the heightened awareness produced by meditation and psychedelics can make us vulnerable to cognitive errors. When the noise in your head shuts down, you become more and more aware of the world around you. The objects and events you notice become fodder for the brain’s pattern matching machine. Your mind starts cranking out coincidences, synchronicities, and grand theories that explain everything. In your heightened state, your new discoveries seem charged with meaning, perhaps to the point of revelation.

In effect, you put on a white robe, adopt yourself as a disciple, and lead yourself off on a merry chase to nowhere.

Fortunately, this result isn’t inevitable. We can be aware of the traps built into the human mind and do our best to avoid them. That’s true for all human minds, not just those under the influence of meditation or psychedelics.

Evolution makes fools out of all of us.

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