Psychedelics are substances that alter cognition and perception, typically as serotonin receptor agonists, causing thought as well as visual and auditory changes, and a heightened state of consciousness. The main psychedelic drugs include mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, Ibogaine.

The term psychedelic it’s derived from the Greek words psyche (soul) and delein (to manifest) so it means soul-manifesting or mind-manifesting – as in psychology, the psyche is the totality of the human mind, conscious and unconscious. The term was first used in 1950’s by Humphrey Osmond in a famous phrase ‘To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic’ written in a letter to Aldous Huxley. Later, Osmond first used the world publicly at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957.

From left: Humphrey Osmond / Osmond at a peyote ceremony / Aldous Huxley

For many people psychedelics are sacramental tools used as part of spiritual practice. They can assist with spiritual growth and self-realization but most importantly, they are clinical tools. Leading British psychiatrist, Ben Sessa, calls them modern psychiatry’s equivalent to the antibiotics of the 20th century! This is because they are thought to get to the heart of psychological problems in patients, offering an opportunity to address their trauma. Recent studies have shown that, in a psychotherapeutic setting, psychedelic drugs may successfully assist with treating addictions and mental disorders. Potentially psychedelics can play a major role in a renaissance of psychiatric practices.

Since the studies of the 1950’s we have known of theb therapeutic qualities of psychedelic substances. Ronald Sandison wrote in 1951 that LSD gives increased access to repressed experiences, opening childhood memories and allowing patients to explore traumatic events of their past and providing associated emotional release. Today we have tools in contemporary brain science that give us an opportunity to revisit those studies of the 1950’s and 1960’s with new eyes.

Historical context

The use of psychedelic plants in spiritual pursuits can be traced to the beginnings of recorded history. As prehistoric men and women foraged for food they must have eaten the psychedelic plants which grow in nearly all regions of the world. Many historians have documented these plants and their major role in the formation of early religions. R.G. Wasson writes about Amanita Muscaria mushroom (Fly Agaric) and claims it to be the inebriating Soma of the ancient Indian Rig Veda. There are some references to psychedelic plants in ancient Buddhist, Hindu, and other far Eastern texts. Many historians have found evidence of the use of psychedelics in the Eleusian and Dionysian rituals of ancient Greece, and in Africa, the use of Iboga was noted by the earliest of English explorers.

From left: amanita muscari / iboga plant / dried iboga root bark

There is an abundance of psychedelic plants in both The Americas and to this day they play a big part in the religions of the Native Americans. The earliest evidence of using mescaline containing Peyote cacti in North America dates back to 3800 BCE. There is also evidence of natives using other entheogens throughout the American continents, especially plants containing DMT and psylocybin mushrooms. When the Spanish invaded, what is now Mexico and South America, they executed psychedelic-using natives, and the religions and healing practices were forced underground. However, a strong shamanic tradition persisted for centuries.

From left: peyote cactus / modern peyote ceremony / peyote ceremony

The modern history of psychedelics in the Western world starts in 1886 when American neurologist and novelist, S.Weir Mitchell, described the cactus in a paper for the British Medical Journal titled The Effects of Anhelonium Lewinii (the Mescal Button). The biggest breakthrough moment in the history of psychedelics was probably in 1943 when Albert Hoffman decided to ingest 250 micrograms of a substance he originally synthesized in 1938 – LSD-25.

From left: Albert Hoffman / LSD from Sandoz branded as Delysid / LSD tabs with Albert Hoffman and the bicycle day

From then on Hoffman was eagerly supplying LSD to any respectable psychiatrist who was able to conduct any useful research utilizing this compound. Meanwhile Robert G. Wasson introduces psilocybin mushrooms to the western world after witnessing his wife Valentina taking part in the mushroom ceremony with a native healer Maria Sabina from the Sierra Mazateca region in the southern Mexico. During the 1950s and 1960s there were over 1000 scientific papers published on psychedelic studies conducted on 40,000 patients. The results of those studies were discussed at six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy.

From left: Gordon Wasson with Maria Sabina / Gordon and Valentina Wasson with mushroom samples / Psilocybe Mexicana mushrooms

One of the people inspired by R.G Wasson’s account of the mushroom experience was Timothy Leary who after reading the article in Life Magazine traveled to Mexico to try the mushrooms. The experience convinced him of their transformative power on an individual’s personality and he decided to dedicate his research to psychedelicdrugs. In 1962 Leary was dosed with LSD for the first time by Michael Hollingshead, a research scientist responsible for supplying the substance to known public figures such as Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Roman Polanski, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Richards and Alan Watts.

From this point on, psychedelics were to immensely influence the developing 1960’s countercultures in America and beyond. Leary, after being thrown out of the university, set out to give LSD to as many people as possible outside of the clinical environment. LSD soon became the next big thing to hit US college campuses. By 1965 over two million people in the States had taken LSD beyond the confines of the clinical or military environment. As the use of psychedelics as recreational drugs was growing, people started appreciating alternative lifestyles. They embraced multiculturalism and the colourful culture that surrounds natural psychedelics, such as peyote, mushrooms and ayahuasca. There was a growing fascination with exotic places and interest in Alternative medicine, ecology (green movement) and spirituality. The Hippie movement was growing all over United States and reached its peak in 1967 at the first ‘Summer of Love’ when a large amount of White Lightning LSD, created by Owsley especially for this occasion, was distributed freely to the audience. In The UK, The hippie movement enjoyed its best years during the 1970s, with the development of the Free Festival movement, the traveller lifestyle and the Stonehenge festivals. The psychedelic music scene grew with bands and musicians such as The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Stones and Jimi Hendrix promoting the use of psychedelics.

From left: Timothy Leary / Tommy Smothers, an unknown friend, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Rosemary Leary and Timothy Leary – previously unseen photograph from “Bed In” for peace series taken at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel in June 1969 / Summer of Love festival in 1967

The U.S. government was afraid of the changes brought about by psychedelic use
so they used the physical, financial, and political forces they controlled to spread fear and discredit the virtues of psychedelics. The establishment spread negativity against psychedelics through the controlled major media sources. As ben Sessa describes, LSD was made illegal in The US in 1966 and was blamed for the total moral collapse of the idealistic 1950’s vision of the American family and the American Dream. The Food and Drug Administration shut down all research, Sandoz stopped distributing it and psychedelic therapy was forced underground.

The Renaissance begins

Psychedelics have recently re-emerged in mainstream culture thanks to scientific research and major media outlets lobbying for changes in the policies. There are a number of researchers at institutions worldwide who study psychedelic substances to rediscover their lost potential. As reported by MAPS, the astounding preliminary research suggests psychedelics may yet revolutionize mental health care, raising hopes for treatment of PTSD, depression, addiction and more. With more understanding of psychedelic substances there comes more acceptance of them, which has let a new generation of users come out of the “psychedelic closet”. All around the world psychedelic users are becoming more vocal about their experiments and practices, and the ways that psychedelics have positively transformed their lives. This new community of “psychonauts” is organizing. The social media age has produced an infrastructure
of advocacy groups and community organizations supporting a range of topics, including medical regulation, private practices, experience sharing and pill testing.

There is a global psychedelic movement who are dedicated to bringing the insights of psychedelic culture to the population at large. Those are groups of like-minded individuals who organize conferences, workshops, and other events that help to raise awareness of psychedelics. It is important to realize that to them the drugs themselves are not as important as the realizations they can help facilitate. The psychedelic movement is not about intoxication, but about embodying the principles deeply-rooted in the psychedelic experience, such as peace, unity, equality, compassion, and harmonious co-existence.

Breaking Convention 2017: 4th Psychedelic Research Conference at Royal Naval College in London