Psychedelic Drugs: Science and Society

“(Some authors)…suggest that psychedelic states formed the basis of humans’ earliest awareness of religious experience.” (Strassman 2001: 21)

“German chemists isolated mescaline from peyote in the 1890s…Freudian psychoanalysis was that era’s predominant force in psychiatry. Freud distrusted religion and believed spiritual or religious experience was a defence against childish fears and wishes. This attitude probably did little to encourage investigation of mescaline, with its trappings of Native American spirituality.(Strassman 2001: pp22-23)

“The years after World War II were exciting ones for psychiatry…the contemporary field of “biological psychiatry” was born in those years. This discipline, which studies the relationship between the human mind and its brain chemistry, was the child of these two strange bedfellows: LSD and Thorazine.” (Strassman 2001: pp23-24)

“If LSD’s extraordinary sensory and emotional properties resulted from changing the function of brain seratonin in specific and understandable ways, it might be possible to “chemically dissect” particular mental functions into their basic physiological components. Other mind altering drugs with comparably well-characterised effects on different neurotransmitters could lead to a decoding of the varieties of conscious experience into thier underlying chemical mechanisms.” (Strassman 2002: 24)

“It soon became apparant that the experiences described by volunteers under deep psychedelic influences were strikingly similar to those of practitioners of traditional Eastern meditation. The overlap between consciousness alteration induced by psychedelic drugs and that induced by meditation attracted the attention of writers outside of academics, including the English novelist and religious philosopher Aldous Huxley…Terminal illness studies and discussions of similarities between psychedelic drug effects and mystical experiences brought religion and science together in an uneasy mix.” (Strassman 2001: 26)

“Psychedelics exert their effects by a complex blending of three factors: set, setting and drug.

Set is our own makeup, both long term and immediate. It is our past, our present, and our potential future; our preferences, ideas, habits, and feelings. Set also includes our body and brain.

The psychedelic experience also hinges on setting: who or what is or isn’t in our immediate surroundings; the environment we’re in, whether natural or urban, indoor or outdoor; the quality of the air and ambient sound around us; and so on. Setting also partakes of the set of who is with us while we take the drug, whether they be a friend or a stranger, relaxed or tense, a supportive guide or a probing scientist.

Then there is the drug.

Even if we agree to call it a drug, look at how many different names it has: hallucinogen (producing hallucinations), entheogen (generating the divine), mysticomimetic (mimicking mystical states), oneirogen (producing dreams), phanerothyme (producing visible feelings), phantasticant (stimulating fantasy), psychodysleptic (mind-disturbing), psychotomimetic and psychotogen (mimicking or producing psychosis, respectively), and psychtoxin and schizotoxin (a poison causing psychosis and schizophrenia, respectively).

I prefer the term psychedelic, or mind-manifesting, over hallucinogen. Psychedelics show you what’s in and on your mind, those subconscious thoughts and feelings that are hidden, covered up, forgotten, out of sight, maybe even completely unexpected, but nevertheless immenently present.” (Strassman 2001: pp29-31)

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