Could you describe your experiences with psychedelics

Happiness comes when the self melts

Psychedelic drugs show amazing results in the treatment of mental illness. Were the hippies right? Is LSD changing the world?

From Bettina Dyttrich

What helps against mental illness: Freud or Prozac? Is it about childhood trauma or brain chemistry? Do we need talk therapy or just medication? These questions polarize, because in them worldviews meet, the big questions about the influence of nature and culture. Are we products of our experiences or our genes? Or are these questions wrong?

In practice, the answer today is often in favor of chemistry: it has the more influential lobby and it is cheaper to prescribe a drug than to prescribe talk therapy. An alarming number of depressed people take their own lives despite treatment, and not even rich Switzerland manages to make access to psychotherapy affordable for everyone (see WOZ No. 11/2019).

But in the midst of this pretty depressing industry, some people have high hopes for chemistry - psychedelic drugs. Because LSD and psilocybin, both of which have their origins in mushrooms, show strong effects on depression, addiction problems and anxiety disorders. The reports are astonishing: Cancer sufferers frozen in fear of death lose their fear and can die calmly. Depressed people feel happy for the first time in years. Some alcoholics and smokers manage to ignore their drugs almost casually. And all thanks to a single, high-dose LSD or psilocybin trip accompanied by a specialist. Too good to be true

The perpetrator becomes a horse

The American non-fiction author Michael Pollan got to the bottom of this question. He interviewed psychiatrists, neuroscientists and test participants - and the widow of the cancer journalist Patrick Mettes, who after a psilocybin session shortly before his death described himself as the "happiest person on earth". For him and many others, the psychedelic experience changed their lives. It was "like a vacation from the prison of my brain", like sudden light in a dark house, like the falling of a concrete coat, say depressives. A man traumatized by sexual assault meets the perpetrator - his father - on the trip: “But he was a horse! A military horse that stood on its hind legs, dressed in military uniform and shirt, in hand a rifle. " The son wants to flee, instead he looks the figure in the eye - 'and immediately began to laugh, it was so ridiculous. And that was the end of the bad trip. "

A smoker sees herself on psilocybin as a “hideous coughing gargoyle” and has thought of this disgusting image every time she tries to smoke. To others, smoking suddenly just seems insignificant and they quit with no effort. An alcoholic feels empathy with herself for the first time and is able to overcome her self-hatred. It still crashes occasionally, but not for days; for them "an occasional one-day binge is progress".

There are no miracle cures in psychedelic therapy either - many depressed people got worse again a few months after trying psilocybin. And for some mental illnesses, such as psychoses, trip treatment is not an option; it would be far too risky. Still, how can a one-off drug experience change so much? Many who have accompanied and taken LSD or psilocybin in a safe, stress-free environment report similar experiences: Often a feeling of overwhelming love arises - even a staunch atheist who interviewed Pollan uses the expression "immersed in God's love". The changed perception is just as overwhelming. On a psilocybin self-experiment, Pollan even had a mystical experience while peeing: “There was a riot of sparkling light in the toilet. The arch of water that I created was really the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. " Later the author listens to Bach's cello suites and feels himself becoming a cello. Relatively high doses of the drugs often create a feeling of disintegration: “'I' turned into a bundle of notes, no bigger than post-its, and they were scattered in the wind. (...) There was life after the death of the self. "

All of this does not mean that the trip is always harmonious. Many consumers remember repressed experiences or experience their own death; Often there are also birth experiences, and Pollan is brutally shaken by the short but all the more violent drug DMT: “Racing backwards through fourteen billion years, I saw the dimensions of reality collapse one after the other until nothing was left , not even being. Just the overwhelming roar. " But even this horror has a happy ending: Overjoyed that he can feel his body again and perceive the world again, Pollan promises "never to forget what a gift (and secret) it is that something and not nothing exists".

What to do with such experiences? Some of what people experience on the trip seems terribly banal in the description - like a hippie cliché:

"Love is everything.
Okay, but what else did you learn?
No, you probably didn't hear me: she is everything!
Is such a deeply felt platitude still just a platitude? "

Is God in the brain?

Pollan also wants to understand the chemistry of psychedelics and meets Robin Carhart-Harris, a British neuroscientist with an unusual résumé: he is also a trained psychoanalyst. As a student, Carhart-Harris came to the conclusion that psychedelics could open up more effective access to the unconscious than the dreams recommended by Freud. He went on to study neuroscience and persisted until he was approved to work with psilocybin in 2009. And he found - not the place where God is in the brain. To his own surprise, he noticed a decrease in brain activity in some subjects on psilocybin.

Imaging methods are still a relatively crude affair to this day: Although it can be made visible where the brain is currently “working” and how hard, that alone does not say much. Nevertheless, this observation put Carhart-Harris on an exciting track. Another neurologist, Marcus Raichle from Washington University, had examined the area of ​​the brain that came to rest on psychedelics at the turn of the millennium: The so-called Default Mode Network is considered the seat of the ego, the brain region that takes over the management when awake holds human identity together.

So there is no need for a “religious center” in the brain - the best way to transcendent feelings is to weaken or dissolve the ego. Actually logical: When the boundaries between inside and outside, between self and world, a feeling of connection with everything arises - at least if the experience is not perceived as threatening.

And here the psychedelic experience meets meditation, brain research meets Buddhism, which has always referred to the self as the source of suffering. Experienced meditators report a similar - very positively perceived - feeling of ego dissolution as users of psychedelic drugs. The default mode network is less active for both.

Several scientists interviewed by Pollan are convinced that many mental illnesses - depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction - have to do with an exaggerated self, with an overly active Default Mode Network. "Much human suffering comes from this self, which must be mentally defended at all costs," says Matthew Johnson, the psychologist who led the psilocybin studies with smokers. "We are caught in a story that sees us as independent actors operating in isolation in the world."

The psychedelic experience can override this story and break up rigid, rigid identities. Pollan is convinced that the dissolution of the ego is "by far the most important and health-promoting" psychedelic effect. The question of whether it is about body or mind, chemistry or childhood is resolved: the dualism is wrong. Mystical experiences are chemical experiences - but that doesn't make them any less valuable.

Damaged and precious

Actually, none of this is new at all. Countless cultures on different continents used psychedelic drugs or drug-free but chemically closely related trance states just like today's psychedelic therapists: ritually, under the guidance of experienced people. Only the Christian-capitalist West sensed the devil everywhere.

The psychedelics hit Europe and North America all the more violently in the 1960s. Patrick Mettes, who overcame his fear of death with psilocybin, described in his 2010 trip log exactly what many hippies had hoped for more than forty years earlier: “I said that everyone deserved to have this experience ... then nobody else could do something ... that it would be impossible to wage war. " The hope was not fulfilled. Nevertheless, the “irrational exuberance” that, according to Pollan, exudes many researchers and therapists who work with psychedelics is beginning to become understandable. Involuntarily, one asks oneself: If many more people, not just sick people, could experience something like this in a safe, accompanied environment - would that perhaps change society after all?

The present sometimes seems like a strange new edition from the sixties: Not only are the psychedelics back, but also the many demos, the fear of the atomic bomb, the polarized political camps, and yoga and meditation are booming like never before. The hippies wanted to free the world from consumerism, and this concern is more urgent today than ever. Perhaps psychedelics are just good tools for the post-consumer world. Because looking for happiness in the material is simply no longer possible if the planet is to remain habitable. Psychedelics are the most resource-efficient and CO2- poorest form of travel. And they make ecology physically tangible: Everything is connected and infinitely precious - even in today's badly damaged condition.

Michael Pollan: «Change your consciousness. What the new psychedelics research teaches us about addiction, depression, fear of death and transcendence ». From the American by Thomas Gunkel. Publisher Antje Kunstmann. Munich 2019. 496 pages. 42 francs.

If you value the independent and critical journalism of WOZ, you are welcome to support us financially: