Psychedelics for systems change: could drugs help us save the planet?

After being forced underground in the 1960s, today psychedelic drugs are having a renaissance. Scientists are only beginning to understand their transformative potential.

Jules Peck
15 February 2020, 10.16am
Image: BarbaraMae, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s psychedelic drugs were a mainstream feature of American academic and medical society, and were widely used to treat things like depression. Between 1950 and 1965, some 40,000 patients were prescribed LSD therapy for neurosis, schizophrenia, and psychopathy.

However, in the late 1960s the ‘Timothy Leary moment’ – in which Harvard accademic Timothy Leary founded a psychedelic religion based on LSD called the League for Spiritual Discovery and coined the phrase “tune in, turn on, drop out” – led to a backlash in which psychedelics were made illegal, even in medical use, and forced underground for decades.

But today psychedelics are having an extraordinary renaissance. A sea-change in attitudes is rapidly building momentum towards mainstream acceptance of the role of psychedelics in human development, as has been documented in bestselling books such as Michael Pollan’s 'How to change your mind' and Kotler and Wheal’s 'Stealing Fire'. An estimated one-in-ten (32 million) Americans use psychedelics on a regular basis, and they are as widely used as in the 1960s boom era.

With Phase 3 clinical trials in the UK and US on their way for psychedelic treatment for many ailments, it‘s not long before psychedelics become commonly prescribed by doctors and perhaps decriminalized for public use in places like the US and UK, as they already are in many countries such as Holland, Portugal, Peru and Brazil.

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‘Shaking the snowglobe’

In the medical field great progress is being made by groups such as MAPS and the work of pioneering scientist Dr Robin Carhart-Harris’s Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College. There, hundreds of patients are being treated with psychedelics for a variety of physical and psychological illnesses and addictions with astonishing outcomes far beyond those of standard medicine and therapy.

Psychedelics are said to ‘shake the snowglobe’ or push the reset button in our brains by releasing dopamine and nonrepinephrine neurochemicals. As the below image illustrates, they massively increase brain connectivity. They are popular with artists, creatives and techies because this unlocks the brain’s ability to boosting lateral and out-of-the-box thinking and complex pattern recognition, helping find new links between concepts and ideas. For many US tech entrepreneurs psychedelics are now the drug of choice for unlocking creativity and team-building. Deep ‘ecstasis’ experiences on high doses release endorphins and anadamine, knocking out the default mode network (DMN) or ‘me network’ in our brains, switching off the ego or self.

Screen Shot 2020-02-15 at 09.56.39.png
Image illustrating the significant uptick in connectivity in brain activity from a) 'normal’ and b) psychedelics states.

Humans developed this ‘me network’ to help them be more successful at a certain stage of their evolution, but it comes with certain drawbacks. As John Hopkins Professor Matt Johnson explains:

“So much of human suffering stems from having this self that needs to be psychologically defended at all costs. We’re trapped in a story that sees ourselves as independent, isolated agents acting in the world. But that self is an illusion. It can be a useful illusion, when you’re swinging through the trees or escaping from a cheetah or trying to do your taxes, but at the systems level, there is no truth to it”.

There’s strong evidence that such experiences catalyse psychological change and change the way we think, experience life and relate to others. Research by Carhart-Harris and others suggests that people’s politics become more ‘plastic’ and mutable and shift towards more intrinsically oriented cooperative, accepting, inclusive and communitarian values. As Carhart-Harris puts it: “the compounds may have a political effect. Many believe LSD played precisely that role in the political upheaval of the 1960s”.

Because of this ‘political’ effect, pioneering psychedelic research work has begun with people without psychological disorders. For instance, one such experiment is exploring the potential benefits of psychedelics for reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian people.

While more work on clear causality is needed, there is strong evidence that psychedelic experiences of awe and ego-dissolution cause subtle shifts away from self-focus, individualism, a desire for financial success and competitiveness towards more intrinsic, open, trusting, optimistic, liberal and collective dimensions of personal identity which resonate with egalitarian political views.

From egoism to ecoism

Psychedelics don’t only break down perceived barriers between our fellow beings, they also have a powerful ability to break down barriers between humans and nature or matter itself. Anyone who has experienced a decent dose of psychedelics in a natural setting will recognise the scenes from the movie Avatar where the characters are tapped into the web of life.

A recent paper from Imperial College’s Sam Gandy and Hannes Kettner, 'From Egioism to Ecoism', contains the first empirical evidence for a causative role of psychedelics in enhanced nature-relatedness. Referring to the boom-era of the 1960s, Gandy and Kettner note that “psychedelic drug use may have contributed to the impetus of modern ecology movements.” If increased connection to nature was important in the 1960s, it is ever more so now.

It has been shown consistently that increased nature connectedness enhances psychological connectedness in a more general sense and elicits higher valuations of the kinds of intrinsic goals and aspirations such as personal growth, intimacy and community compared to extrinsic ones like money, image and fame.

These changes psychedelics seem to affect echo the kinds of values shifts explored by the work of Tim Kasser and Common Cause which maps human values on an axis of ‘self enhancement’ values (i.e. broad-mindedness, equality, social justice, friendship, community, helpfulness) versus ‘self transcendence’ values (i.e. financial success, ambition, image, status).

The kind of values we prioritise represent a strong guiding force shaping our attitudes and behaviours and influencing our political persuasions, our willingness to engage in political action, our career and consumption choices and the way we bring up our children and interact with wider society.

Intrinsic values in tension with extrinsic ones. | https://valuesandframes.org/on-having-more-than-two-sides

Professor Kasser has shown that, compared to those oriented towards intrinsic values, people who have strongly held extrinsic values such as materialism express less love of the natural world, have higher ecological footprints, engage in fewer pro-environmental behaviors and report more greed and use resources less sustainably in social dilemma games, such as the "tragedy of the commons" problem.

Opposite values on the values map are in tension with each other, so dialling up one dials down the other in a see-saw effect. But where we sit on the ‘values map’ between the collection of intrinsic or ‘we’ values and extrinsic ‘me’ values orientation is not fixed – it can shift with the right stimulus. Upbringing, advertising and societal norms are likely to be crucially important in mediating where we each sit on the values map or circumplex.

New values, new economy?

Values are not just important at the individual level. The values of our overall social and economic system play an important role in shaping our psychological lives and determining our own personal values, our individual and social lived experience and world views. Repeated norming and engagement of these values in turn internalises these values in us and reinforces the ongoing hegemony of this dominant system and its values, rules, policy and structural designs.

The currently predominant world economic system has its own set of highly extrinsically oriented values and a guiding vision of individuals competing with each other for their own self-interests bringing optimum outcomes for all. But this vision is highly contested and it is increasingly clear that, whatever benefits it may have brought at a certain stage of social evolution, we are now paying far too high a price for it.

This system now inescapably causes serious, potentially civilisation threatening ecological externalities and extreme inequality. For this reason ‘new’ and ‘next’ economy movements are actively exploring ways to shift us to a new system where the citizen, community, civic associations and a ‘partner state’ are in the driving seat rather than capital.

The extrinsic ‘me’ self-enhancing values of power (dominance over people and resources) and hierarchy which dominate our psyches and maintain and underpin our current system encourages people, institutions and systems to give preference to things like financial success, prestige, authority, individualism, competition and materialism, and thus undermine our own wellbeing and that of our planet.

Imagine if we could shift our values towards the kinds of autonomously chosen intrinsic values like benevolence, cooperation, community, universalism, affiliation to friends and family, connection to and concern for nature, social justice and creativity. This might characterise a more democratic, postcapitalist, participative and commons based system of economics.

A 2014 study by Imperial’s Professor David Nutt showed a close relationship between psychedelics and ego-dissolution and selflessness, and conversely a close relationship between alcohol and cocaine and ego-inflation and self-centred experiences. Perhaps it’s no surprise psychedelics are characterised as hippie drugs, and cocaine the drug for the banker?

We know from systems theory that complex adaptive systems, such as hegemonic politico-economic systems like the current system, have feedback processes and self-correcting mechanisms to ensure their continued dominance. Thus, by way of self-protection, the values, incentives and disincentives, norms, institutional architecture and lifestyles that drive hyper-consumerist, extrinsically orientated people (whose lifestyles support the dominant system) are perhaps more likely to lead them to individualistic ego-inflation experiences and drugs rather than more collective and ‘open’ ego-dissolution experiences. What the impact of widespread ego-dissolution experiences might have on people with these extrinsic lifestyles and values sets can only be imagined, but that is certainly something that Gail Bradbrook, founder of Extinction Rebellion had in mind in calling for ‘mass psychedelic disobedience’.

Indeed, in 2008 Professor Nutt was vilified and then thrown out of high office by a mainstream repelled by the idea of non state-sanctioned states of consciousness when he pointed out the scientific fact that things like alcohol, tobacco, Ritalin and Oxycontin are many, many times more harmful than psychedelics. But these state-sanctioned drugs are all arguably tools of the current system – stimulants to drive more production and consumption.

It is striking that these extrinsic values so prevalent in society today are the very same values which psychedelics seem to help dial down in switching off the ‘me’ network, and switching on the ‘we’ network. But despite the popularity of organised psychedelic retreats few if any seem to have been designed and carried out with an overt focus on seeking to explore these values shifts, and to support a move beyond inbuilt resistance to system change.

The ego-dissolution which occurs with deep ecstasis on psychedelics is exactly what is needed at this moment in our social evolution. Perhaps they can ‘shake the snow-globe’, unblock our minds to seeing the need for and potential of radical system change?

Creative new ways of imagining and co-creating a new social story might be unlocked with their ability to help connect us to ‘greater-than-self’ challenges and boost lateral and out-of-the-box thinking, complex pattern recognition and help find new links between concepts and ideas.

Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk have made this point well on multiple occasions. Others such as Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of XR, have made similar points about the potential power of psychedelics in relation to climate change awareness and action. The same vision that psychedelics should be a tool for social transformation and not just personal transformation was what united earlier thinkers in the 1960s such as Huxley, Dass and Ginsberg.

While much has been written about the idea that ‘psychedelics can heal the world’ or ‘fight fascism’, these are clearly overplaying their hand. There are also others like Brian Pace who challenge the idea that psychedelics could be transformatory for society and help shift politics to the left, pointing out that there are those on the alt-right who are big fans of these compounds.

But perhaps these challenges to the ‘heal the world’ thesis miss the point. It’s clearly not credible to suggest that just because you experiment with psychedelics you will automatically become a left wing eco-warrior. There are no doubt those on the right who are regular users of psychedelics to no effect of this kind. Indeed Alan Piper has documented in great detail the fascinating historical links between the far right and psychedelics. But as Pace notes, “it does not appear that the far right has embraced psychedelics anywhere near the extent that other subcultures have.”

But it’s important to recognise that most people are not alt-right in values and people with extreme values would never be the main target audience for such work. Perhaps Todd Gitlin is right when he commented recently to Marc Gunther that “the authoritarians who crush nature and love plutocracy are not the ones who are going to feel at one in the universe”.

But there is a huge cohort of people in the political ‘centre’ whose values might shift in a more prosocial direction if they experienced psychedelics at the right dose and with the right set and setting, informed by what we know about values and the way they can shift.

As John Hopkins’ Professor Matthew Johnson says:

“I certainly wouldn’t say that psychedelics are a panacea that is single-handedly going to save the world. But perhaps, if cautiously used under the right circumstances, they could be part of and contribute to an overall greater level of awareness. Ultimately, we’re all completely dependent on each other, we’re on this planet together, trying to figure out how to ultimately survive and thrive, and I think these profound mystical experiences, however they might be occasioned, can perhaps help point us in the right direction”.

What is needed is clearly a more thoughtful approach than what Pace calls “vague implications that wider psychedelic use will somehow inspire progressive values, universal siblinghood, and an ecotopia of overlong, platonic hugs”.

Towards open source experimentation

At a time where there is an explosion of noise about the potential for a mainstreaming of psychedelics, and a very real threat of capture and enclosure of this space purely for profit, it seems important to experiment with more prosocial ways of using these extraordinary tools for societal transformation in an open-source manner.

Combining what we know about shamanic rituals, the science of psychedelics and values theory into a program of retreats might be a useful way to explore unlocking changes in people’s approach to system challenges.

It would be important that this new renaissance is not set back by another ‘Timothy Leary moment’ and these retreats would need to be undertaken in the most highly professional, ethical and responsible manner. Naturally, these retreats would for the time being need to take place in a country such as Holland where psychedelics are not illegal.

The curation, set (psychological context) and setting (sociocultural context) including the framing and curation of group discussions before and after the psychedelic journey would need to be designed to allow emergent and co-creative exploration of values change and systems thinking.

It would also be interesting to explore running these retreats in natural settings to explore nature-connectedness as well as using appropriate music, which the science of neuro-musicology has shown can help switch brainwaves from high-beta (normal waking state) to alpha and theta which is experienced in ecstasis, along with tools perhaps such as systemic constellations.

Such retreats would need to be science based and record open-source outcomes in a way which helps move forward the science of psychedelics as well as the field of values change and system change. One might work with a number of different pre and post assessment tools including values and political alignment, nature-relatedness, brain scans and heart monitoring.

Whilst we must not see psychedelics as a silver bullet, they are surely a potentially important and as of yet under explored potential tool for human transformation. Perhaps in this way, intrinsically oriented values, dialled-up by psychedelic experiences, could play an important role in shifting individual and organisational consciousness.

Ultimately, they could enhance acceptance of the need to a shift away from a winner-takes all race to the bottom of growth, profit and individualism towards a system characterised by more collective and community oriented values.

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