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Hendricks mentioned the research of Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at Berkeley who happens to be a close friend. “Keltner believes that awe is a fundamental human emotion, one that evolved in us because it promotes altruistic behavior. We are descendants of those who found the experience of awe blissful, because it’s advantageous for the species to have an emotion that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves.” This larger entity could be the social collective, nature as a whole, or a spirit world, but it is something sufficiently overpowering to dwarf us and our narrow self-interest. “Awe promotes a sense of the ‘small self’ that directs our attention away from the individual to the group and the greater good.”

Keltner’s lab at Berkeley has done a clever series of experiments demonstrating that after people have had even a relatively modest experience of awe, such as looking at soaring trees, they’re more likely to come to the assistance of others. (In this experiment, conducted in a eucalyptus grove on the Berkeley campus, volunteers spent a minute looking either at the trees or at the façade of a nearby building. Then a confederate walked toward the participants and stumbled, scattering pens on the ground. Bystanders who had looked at the trees proved more likely to come to her aid than those who had looked at the building.) In another experiment, Keltner’s lab found that if you ask people to draw themselves before and after viewing awe-inspiring images of nature, the after-awe self-portraits will take up considerably less space on the page. An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism.

“We now have a pharmacological intervention that can occasion truly profound experiences of awe,” Hendricks pointed out. Awe in a pill. For the self-obsessed addict, “it can be blissful to feel a part of something larger and greater than themselves, to feel reconnected to other people”—to the weave of social and family relations that addiction reliably frays. “Very often they come to recognize the harm they’re doing not only to themselves but to loved ones. That’s where the motivation to change often comes from—a renewed sense of connection and responsibility, as well as the positive feeling of being a small self in the presence of something greater.”

The concept of awe, I realized, could help connect several of the dots I’d been collecting in the course of my journey through the landscape of psychedelic therapy. Whether awe is a cause or an effect of the mental changes psychedelics sponsor isn’t entirely clear. But either way, awe figures in much of the phenomenology of psychedelic consciousness, including the mystical experience, the overview effect, self-transcendence, the enrichment of our inner environment, and even the generation of new meanings. As Keltner has written, the overwhelming force and the mystery of awe are such that the experience can’t readily be interpreted according to our accustomed frames of thought. By rocking those conceptual frameworks, awe has the power to change our minds.

Three: Depression

Something unexpected happened when, early in 2017, Roland Griffiths and Stephen Ross brought the results of their clinical trials to the FDA, hoping to win approval for a larger, phase 3 trial of psilocybin for cancer patients. Impressed by their data—and seemingly undeterred by the unique challenges posed by psychedelic research, such as the problem of blinding, the combining of therapy and medicine, and the fact that the drug in question is still illegal—the FDA staff surprised the researchers by asking them to expand their focus and ambition: to test whether psilocybin could be used to treat the much larger and more pressing problem of depression in the general population. As the regulators saw it, the data contained a strong enough “signal” that psilocybin could relieve depression; it would be a shame not to test the proposition, given the enormity of the need and the limitations of the therapies now available. Ross and Griffiths had focused on cancer patients because they thought it would be easier to win approval to study a controlled substance in people who were already seriously ill or dying. Now the government was telling them to raise their sights. “It was surreal,” Ross told me, twice, as he recounted the meeting, still somewhat stunned at the response and outcome. (The FDA declined to confirm or deny this account of the meeting, explaining that it doesn’t comment on drugs in development or under regulatory review.)

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