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بخش 03

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Third data point: The dinner table conversation jogged a vague memory that a few years before somebody had e-mailed me a scientific paper about psilocybin research. Busy with other things at the time, I hadn’t even opened it, but a quick search of the term “psilocybin” instantly fished the paper out of the virtual pile of discarded e-mail on my computer. The paper had been sent to me by one of its co-authors, a man I didn’t know by the name of Bob Jesse; perhaps he had read something I’d written about psychoactive plants and thought I might be interested. The article, which was written by the same team at Hopkins that was giving psilocybin to cancer patients, had just been published in the journal Psychopharmacology. For a peer-reviewed scientific paper, it had a most unusual title: “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

Never mind the word “psilocybin”; it was the words “mystical” and “spiritual” and “meaning” that leaped out from the pages of a pharmacology journal. The title hinted at an intriguing frontier of research, one that seemed to straddle two worlds we’ve grown accustomed to think are irreconcilable: science and spirituality.

Now I fell on the Hopkins paper, fascinated. Thirty volunteers who had never before used psychedelics had been given a pill containing either a synthetic version of psilocybin or an “active placebo”—methylphenidate, or Ritalin—to fool them into thinking they had received the psychedelic. They then lay down on a couch wearing eyeshades and listening to music through headphones, attended the whole time by two therapists. (The eyeshades and headphones encourage a more inward-focused journey.) After about thirty minutes, extraordinary things began to happen in the minds of the people who had gotten the psilocybin pill.

The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe. This might not come as news to people who take psychedelic drugs or to the researchers who first studied them back in the 1950s and 1960s. But it wasn’t at all obvious to modern science, or to me, in 2006, when the paper was published.

What was most remarkable about the results reported in the article is that participants ranked their psilocybin experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives, comparable “to the birth of a first child or death of a parent.” Two-thirds of the participants rated the session among the top five “most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives; one-third ranked it the most significant such experience in their lives. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly. The volunteers reported significant improvements in their “personal well-being, life satisfaction and positive behavior change,” changes that were confirmed by their family members and friends.

Though no one knew it at the time, the renaissance of psychedelic research now under way began in earnest with the publication of that paper. It led directly to a series of trials—at Hopkins and several other universities—using psilocybin to treat a variety of indications, including anxiety and depression in cancer patients, addiction to nicotine and alcohol, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and eating disorders. What is striking about this whole line of clinical research is the premise that it is not the pharmacological effect of the drug itself but the kind of mental experience it occasions—involving the temporary dissolution of one’s ego—that may be the key to changing one’s mind.

• • • AS SOMEONE not at all sure he has ever had a single “spiritually significant” experience, much less enough of them to make a ranking, I found that the 2006 paper piqued my curiosity but also my skepticism. Many of the volunteers described being given access to an alternative reality, a “beyond” where the usual physical laws don’t apply and various manifestations of cosmic consciousness or divinity present themselves as unmistakably real.

All this I found both a little hard to take (couldn’t this be just a drug-induced hallucination?) and yet at the same time intriguing; part of me wanted it to be true, whatever exactly “it” was. This surprised me, because I have never thought of myself as a particularly spiritual, much less mystical, person. This is partly a function of worldview, I suppose, and partly of neglect: I’ve never devoted much time to exploring spiritual paths and did not have a religious upbringing. My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room—the room of your own mind—that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking—of being!—lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

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