By now, I suppose we’ve all got the memo: psychedelic drugs have great medical potential. The next step, for me at least, is a better understanding of how they work.
There seems to be a big gap in our knowledge. When we discuss psychedelics at the level of chemistry and neuroscience, we use very precise, technical language. We talk about molecular structure, receptor sites in the nervous system, neurotransmitters, and so forth in great detail.
Then we move over to the clinical side where, say, a psychologist administers psilocybin to an alcoholic. The technical language goes away and we talk about “integrative experiences” and “wholeness” and so on to explain why the drug works.
As I see it, the switch from precise, scientific terminology to the vague language of spirituality is one of the mysteries of psychedelics. You wouldn’t see a gap like that with an antibiotic or decongestant.
My guess is that we resort to fuzzy explanations for psychedelic therapy because they’re the best we have. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual terminology is wrong, it just means that there’s a lot more work to do. Since the current period of mystery may last awhile, I’d like to propose some vague language of my own which, I hope, will shed some light and narrow the gap.
We know that psychedelics are useful for treating a broad range of conditions—addiction, PTSD, depression, autism, and anxiety for starters. I’m curious to know what these conditions have in common. At first, I naïvely expected a simple answer—a shared gene or neurochemical or some other MacGuffin that might expose the inner workings of psychedelic therapy. I don’t think I’m going to get my simple answer any time soon.
As it happens, however, I know a number of people who live with the serious conditions that are treated with psychedelics—addicts, alcoholics, and trauma victims. When they tell their stories, they talk about a feeling of imprisonment. People with PTSD describe an overpowering fear that compels them to avoid others or stay indoors. Addicts are slaves condemned to repeating the same destructive behaviors over and over.
Psychedelics can produce a powerful experience of freedom, as I discovered first hand when I took ayahuasca at the Santo Daime church in Oregon. It was like walking into a vast, open space free of the inner noise and endless thought loops I’d carried around for years.
For an addict or trauma victim, this taste of freedom could be the blessing of a lifetime. It could be the beginning of hope. Maybe that’s a key to understanding the value of psychedelic therapy.
Peychedelics are medicine for people who are trapped.